Life after liver transplant, because life wasn’t always guaranteed

October 11th, 2019
This is a photo of Sarah Leonard and George Gess.
Sarah Leonard and George Gess are engaged to be married in the fall of 2020. Photo courtesy of Sarah Leonard.

When George Gess moved to Steamboat Springs in 2015, he wanted to experience everything a mountain community had to offer – biking, skiing, hiking, snowboarding. He wanted to do it all.

Luckily for Gess, he had had the perfect tour guide.

“We met through mutual friends in Michigan,” said Sarah Leonard, a Steamboat native and Gess’ fiancé. “My friend told me, ‘I think I know who you’re going to marry.’ Who would have thought that would actually happen?”

Gess had plans to pursue nursing school once in Colorado. It had piqued his interest after an exchange with a male nurse who happened to be caring for one of Gess’ close friends following a car accident.

This is a photo of George Gess fishing at Hog Park Reservoir in Wyoming.
George Gess fishes at Hog Park Reservoir in Wyoming. Photo courtesy of Sarah Leonard.

“Seeing the way he did his job and what it entailed really intrigued me,” said Gess. “After that, I did a wilderness first responder class for a weekend, then went to EMT school. I was about halfway through the paramedic program when I decided nursing would be a better fit for me.”

As he worked full-time as a pharmacy technician at the outpatient pharmacy at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, Gess completed necessary prerequisites, applied and was accepted to the nursing program at Colorado Northwestern Community College.

Then, just as Gess was preparing to learn how to care for patients as a nurse, he himself became the patient.

When a consult turns into a liver transplant

Gess developed a number of gastrointestinal symptoms, so he sought care from Dr. Jon Hamilton, a family medicine physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at Yampa Valley Medical Center. Hamilton ordered a basic lab evaluation to help identify a possible source of the symptoms.

“Once these came back, I was concerned for hepatitis due to the levels, but not exactly hepatitis C,” said Hamilton. “When the hepatitis panel did come back, it confirmed some of my fears.”

This is a photo of Dr. Lisa Forman.
Dr. Lisa Forman. Photo courtesy UCHealth.

Hamilton then referred Gess to UCHealth Hepatology Clinic on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora via Epic.

“What I thought was going to be a consult, turned into a liver transplant conversation,” said Gess. “It was not what I was expecting to hear.”

“George had cirrhosis of the liver and needed a transplant,” said Dr. Lisa Forman, due to the Hepatitis C infection causing significant damage to Gess’ liver.

Forman prescribed a number of medications to help Gess, but as time went by, things got progressively worse.

Comfort in the community’s hospital

Over the course of a few months, Gess was admitted a number of times to YVMC via its emergency department; on a few occasions, he was flown to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital (UCH) in Aurora.

“You don’t know how to feel in those instances, except that when he’s being flown, you know it’s serious,” said Leonard. “It was surreal, but oddly comforting, when George was at our hospital (YVMC). There’s advantages to living in a small town like Steamboat and having YVMC be a part of UCHealth. Dr. [Gary] Breen was super helpful. The doctors were all great, and especially the nurses as we were able to really connect with them.”

“It was an up and down road, in and out of the hospital in Steamboat and at UCH,” said Gess. “I was in an incredibly fortunate place for an incredibly unfortunate set of circumstances.”

In late 2018, Forman told Gess that the only option was to get Gess on the transplant list for a new liver with UNOS, the United Network for Organ Sharing.

“I told Dr. Forman, ‘If we have to do it, let’s do it,’” said Gess. “There were evaluations and meetings with a social worker and routine blood and urine screens, but in early December 2018, I was officially listed.”

Waiting for the call

Gess and Leonard kept a bag packed, as they didn’t know when the call might come.

“It could be tomorrow, six months or two years, depending on where you’re at on the list for our region, which is made up of six states,” said Gess. “They use a MELD score to determine the severity of your need for a new liver. When I listed, I was a 25 out of 40 – it was high, but there were patients closer to 40, meaning they were sicker than I was.”

Gess was at work in the pharmacy when the call came on March 21, 2019.

“From the time you get listed, you hold your breath a little bit every time the phone rings,” said Gess. “But when Amy, my primary nurse contact, called and said, ‘I think we have a match for you. Can you get down here?’, it was an overwhelming feeling. Wes [Hunter, director of pharmacy at YVMC] immediately told me to, ‘Go! Get out of here!’ It wasn’t 30 minutes after I got the call and Sarah and I were on the road.”

Waiting for the liver, then more waiting

This photo shows George Gess on March 22, 2019, the day of his liver transplant.
A liver transplant on March 22, 2019 literally changed George Gess’ life. Photo courtesy of Sarah Leonard.

When Gess and Leonard arrived at UCH the next morning at 6 a.m., the liver still wasn’t there.

“We knew all along that even when the call came, we might get here and it might not happen,” said Leonard. “The team gave us frequent updates, and finally midafternoon, they came in and told us it was actually going to happen, that the liver had arrived and it was time.”

As Gess was prepped for surgery, Dr. Michael Wachs, Gess’ surgeon, introduced him to the team involved with the surgery.

“Dr. Wachs told me, ‘I got you. Don’t sweat it. We’ll see you in a couple hours,” said Gess. “For Sarah, it was a much longer wait.”

“When the nurse came out after seven hours and said the doctor wanted to talk with me, but deferred all my questions to the doctor, I thought he was dead,” recalls Leonard. “I thought I was going to pass out when Dr. Wachs told me he was ok. Through the whole process, your body somehow takes care of you, pushes you to do whatever you can do and have to do for your loved one. It wasn’t until it was over that I think I actually processed everything.”

Connected to My Health

This is a photo of George Gess one day after his liver transplant.
George Gess, one day after his liver transplant. Photo courtesy of Sarah Leonard.

Gess stayed at UCH for a week following surgery, then moved into an apartment in Arvada for a month, as post-operatively, it was easier to be close for the multiple clinic visits, lab tests and medication modifications that needed to take place. Leonard, Gess’ mother, Sarah – “the other Sarah in my life,” and sister Emma supported him during recovery.

“I was so comfortable with all the care he received,” said Leonard. “The culture there [at UCH] is similar to that at YVMC. They’re nicest people.”

Gess was pleased with the personalized care he received, and having My Health Connection made it seamless.

“The team was so on top of it. The efficiency of how they do things is crazy,” said Gess. “Dr. Forman was my rock through this whole thing. She advocated more for me than I could possibly ask for. Dr. Forman did everything in her power to make this happen as soon as possible. She cared to the point of if they hadn’t heard from me with a question in a few days, they’d reach out to me via the app, which made all of this so easy.”

“Epic has allowed me to follow every step along the way with George’s journey,” said Hamilton. “I continue to follow George with every appointment he has with all the UCHealth specialists and Epic is the driving force behind this.”

Once to honor my donor, twice to celebrate my strength and three times to encourage others who follow in my footsteps.

Life after new liver

Leonard says Gess has always been a positive person, but for so long, he was just trying to live.

George Gess and dog Kodak hike at Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs.
George Gess and Kodak hiking Fish Creek Falls in Steamboat Springs. Photo courtesy of Sarah Leonard.

“Now, he’s mountain biking and we take hikes with our dog – he has a desire to go and do,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing how quickly the new liver had a positive impact. He’d been cold for over a year. This summer, he’s worn shorts.”

A stronger appreciation for the little things is something Gess said he now values.

“We can leave work, head to a trail and be surrounded by beauty in nature within minutes,” he said. “It’s nice to be on this side of the procedure, to not have that looming uncertainty in the back of your mind.”

The only uncertainty left now are decisions to make about their wedding, set for mid-September, 2020. Gess is ready to play whatever role is required of him in the planning of their big day.

“Sarah is my best friend in the entire world,” said Gess. “I don’t know if I could have done this without her. It’s a tough fight to get through. As a patient, you’re so focused on getting well, but the caregiver at your side is going through everything, too. Even on bad days, she and Kodak, our dog, are right there next to me.”

“George is a good person – to everybody. He treats everyone with the same love and kindness,” said Leonard. “We’re excited for the future, because it wasn’t always guaranteed.”

A new outlook on patient care

George Gess fills a patient prescription in the outpatient pharmacy at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
George Gess fills a prescription in the outpatient pharmacy at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. Photo by UCHealth.

Gess plans to begin nursing school in the fall of 2020 and will continue in the pharmacy during that time.

“Being a patient myself has given me an entirely heightened sense of empathy,” he said. “I know what it’s like to receive medications from the nurses.”

Gess said he knew someone was behind the scenes, making sure he received the necessary medications. Getting to do that for others not only provides him with job satisfaction, but also a human connection.

“I want to make sure everything I’m doing is proper and in the patient’s best interest. To know you have a hand in making someone’s life better, especially when so many people did that for me, is pretty incredible.”

 

Eternal gratitude

I am incredibly grateful to every department at YVMC. There wasn’t a department in this hospital that didn’t have a part in taking care of me.

My deepest thank you to all of you and those who cared for me without me knowing it. Everyone has been so great in helping me through the whole thing and supporting me afterwards. I don’t think I could ever repay you for all you’ve done.

-George

About the author

Lindsey Reznicek is a communications specialist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She has spent the last eight years working in marketing and communications in health care, an industry she never considered but one to which she's contributed through her work in media relations, executive messaging and internal communications. She considers it an honor to interact with patients and write about their experiences; it’s what keeps her coming back to work each day.

A native of Nebraska, Lindsey received a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, with a focus on public relations, from the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University – she bleeds purple.

She could see a Broadway musical every week, is a huge animal lover, enjoys a good shopping trip, and likes spending time in the kitchen. Lindsey and her husband have two daughters and enjoy hiking in the summer and skiing all winter long.