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124|| A Miraculous Transplant

Cancer discriminates against no one; it attacks women, men, children, rich, poor, young and old. From the moment they receive the diagnosis, cancer patients find their world changes — literally overnight. Their priorities realign, and life becomes a rollercoaster of unknown twists and turns.

Tiffany Schwantes, a healthy 30-year-old mother and wife, received her unexpected diagnosis in October of 2011. She’d had very few symptoms — irregular weight loss and some random pains in her side — and little warning. But after several weeks, she knew something wasn’t right, and Tiffany went to the emergency room.

A week later, Tiffany had her answer — she had cholangiocarcinoma, an extremely rare bile duct cancer. And she was already at stage 4. The news was devastating and very hard to process.

Doctors explained that, because the cancer was so advanced, chemotherapy wasn’t an option for a cure, but it could prolong the quality and length of time she had remaining. They advised her to seek treatment immediately at one of the world’s leading cancer centers, the University of Texas MD Anderson Center in Houston.

The first few weeks were absolutely overwhelming. Doctors appointments, numerous tests, and complicated travel plans for treatment consumed every waking hour. Tiffany struggled with how to explain to their children what was going on in a way that was accurate, but wouldn’t needlessly scare them. She had to navigate the how-what-why questions, and was quickly overcome with feelings of desperation and hopelessness.

Despite her fear, Tiffany was realistic about the prognosis. “I am going to fight this as long as I can for my family, but it will eventually kill me,” she said.

Treatment Begins

In mid-November, Tiffany and her husband, Brian, went on their first ever plane ride to Texas. At MD Anderson, they met Dr. Miliand Javie, the oncologist who would assume primary responsibility for her care. He gave her an aggressive bi-monthly chemotherapy plan and told her they would have to wait and see how the cancer reacted to treatment.

For the next year, Tiffany spent every week in and out of Clearview Cancer Institute in her hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, doing routine blood testing and regular chemo sessions. Quarterly, she flew to MD Anderson for three days of consecutive appointments to see specialists, complete scans, and regulate the overall effectiveness of the prescribed plan.

The side effects of chemo were difficult. Tiffany struggled with fatigue and felt unsure she would make it from week to week. Tiffany recalls the hardest part was knowing the chemotherapy would not cure her. The pain, suffering, irritability and exhaustion were simply bandages for an illness doctors said would end her life.

Facts and doctor’s prognoses aside, Tiffany pressed on. She believed her suffering could be used to share the hope of the Gospel. “If people could see my attitude — still hopeful, thankful, and worshipping God in the midst of my pain and suffering — it would point people to the cross,” Tiffany said.

At times she was fearful, but she chose to rest and believe that her life was in the hands of an almighty and sovereign God. Tiffany believed God would take care of her family if the worst happened, and she desperately tried to focus on the days immediately ahead.

Due to the side effects of her daily medications, she could not drive a car; yet Tiffany was surrounded by friends who took her to church, doctors’ appointments and running errands. Local families often brought meals. The community participated in fundraisers to help cover cancer-related travel bills, and hundreds prayed faithfully every day.

One day, Tiffany went to her mailbox and was surprised to find over 200 cards from her city of birth. A ministry there had coordinated a mail mob of cards, each with a two dollar bill and personal thoughts, encouragement and Bible verses. She was overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of these gestures from people she didn’t even know.

Over and over again, God reminded her in tangible ways that He was not only her life sustainer, but also her provider and comforter.

A Glimpse of Hope

In August of 2012, the doctors at MD Anderson gave Tiffany the first glimpse of hope for healing when they decided to run tests to see if she was eligible for a transplant. The majority of patients with Tiffany’s type of cancer are not eligible, but because of her young age and her body’s receptive response to a long duration of chemo, they referred her to the Houston Methodist Hospital organ list.

The exact waiting period was unknown, but it was estimated to be two years or more — a wait that could prove fatal for her. Transplant recipients are chosen according to their degree of illness. Because Tiffany’s liver was not sick enough, she was moved to the bottom of the list. While she waited, her cancer could spread, or her health could fail before her time ever came. So Tiffany, her friends and family waited and prayed — hoping and thanking God in advance for the healing they believed He would provide.

The wait along with the rigorous chemo treatments began to take an increasing toll on her body. She was hospitalized several times in a few short months. Tiffany began to feel sick and exhausted almost every day.

A Chance for a Miracle

Almost six months later, Tiffany got the call.

Doctors explained the possibility of receiving a transplant from a living donor, using a controversial and revolutionary medical process called a domino transplant. Tiffany would receive a liver from 60-year-old Vernon Roberson, who was suffering from amyloidosis, a genetic disease that attacks organs such as the heart, kidneys, liver. Vernon was waiting for a heart and liver transplant of his own and was asked if he would be willing to donate his liver to another individual when he received his transplants.

Interestingly, Vernon’s liver would be a viable organ for Tiffany because the disease would not likely transfer to Tiffany. But if it did, it wouldn’t affect her for 20 – 30 years, at which time she could get another transplant.

After much research and prayer, Tiffany felt peace that this expedited opportunity for a liver was the lifesaving opportunity she had been waiting for. She agreed, and surgeons told her to have her phone with her at all times, to be packed and ready to go to Texas at a moment’s notice.

A friend from Tiffany’s church had a connection with a pilot who volunteered to fly Tiffany and her husband to Texas via private plane, night or day, whenever the time came. Her in-laws committed to taking care of their young children for the duration of her stay in Texas. All the preliminary plans were in motion.

Then they waited.

The Operation

On July 8th, 2013, the call came. Tiffany packed her bags, kissed her children, and bravely got on the plane. She knew the moment her feet hit the Texas soil the whirlwind procedure would begin. When she arrived, she was immediately admitted into the ICU and given a few minutes to pray with a chaplain before preparing for the operation. She was overwhelmed with an ambivalent mixture of thanksgiving and fear. She worried about potential complications of the risky surgery and wondered what the pain level would be when she awoke.

Doctor Mark Ghobrial, director of the Methodist Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation at Houston Methodist, led the extensive transplant team. The team consisted of nearly 50 people, including four liver surgeons, two cardiac surgeons and anesthesia teams. It was quite the undertaking since this was first time a domino transplant had ever taken place at this hospital. The surgery took nearly took 12 hours, but it was coordinated and executed to perfection.

Tiffany awoke from surgery with breathing tubes, hands tied down, and unable to talk. When she was conscious enough to communicate, the nurse handed her a note pad, and she wrote, “Am I okay? Her husband, Brian, smiled hugely and nodded. She scribbled, “Did anything go wrong?” He reassured her she was stable, and all was as expected.

The feeling of relief was almost unbearable.

Tiffany remained in Texas for six weeks following the procedure for therapy, tests and follow-up. Though thankful for such a great outcome, the recovery period was difficult because she missed her children who were states away in Alabama. She focused on getting mobile as quickly as possible so she could return to her life.

Reflections on Surviving

As Tiffany reflected on the struggle of dealing with all of the unknowns in her battle against cancer, she shared, “I’ve had to accept that God doesn’t always work on our timeline, but His timing is always perfect.”

When asked about how she managed to trust God with such confusing circumstances, she said God taught her to continuously surrender her wishes, dreams and hopes to Him. “I had to let go. I had to just say, ‘Okay God, whatever is Your will, help me be okay with it.’ It was a daily struggle.”

Today, Tiffany is enjoying her family and making hopeful plans for the future. Sometimes it seems too good to be true. She is filled with gratefulness that the transplant was successful and treasures the years that have been added to her life. She said, “The first Christmas after my diagnosis, I was convinced I would never see another one.”

Once she was home, she still had five years of waiting before she could safely rest with the security of being fully in remission. 2018 can’t come quickly enough!

Tiffany is in awe of the miraculous story God gave her, and she shares it freely with the press, other cancer patients and whoever else will listen. She is thankful for the expertise and willingness of excellent doctors but ultimately considers her life-saving operation an answer to prayer and a testimony to the goodness of God.

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