Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/3/2020 (535 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
People often say an organ transplant is a miracle. Liver-transplant recipient Ron Lotz’s story takes that a step further.
"It’s been the most strange thing I could ever imagine," he says over the phone.
On the evening of March 11, Lotz, who at 68 has lived with liver disease since 1974, got the call everyone on a transplant waiting list dreams of receiving. He was dining with Patricia, his wife of 46 years, and his brother-in-law Larry Pradinuk at a Smitty’s restaurant near his home in North Kildonan. It would be Pradinuk’s birthday in a couple of days.
Earlier that day, Lotz had been part of a video conference call with doctors in Toronto regarding his liver and his place on the transplant waiting list. They said it would likely be the fall before he’d get the call to come for surgery.
At dinner, Lotz’s cellphone rang.
It was the liver transplant program in Toronto, telling him to get home quickly and they would call with details.
"They said, ‘Get yourself ready. We have a liver for you,’" Lotz recalls.
A couple of hours later, Lotz and Pradinuk were heading to the airport — not the main terminal — to catch an overnight charter to Toronto. Patricia, who has a chronic illness that has compromised her immunity, was advised to stay home.
On March 11, Ontario reported five more cases of COVID-19 in the province, upping its total to 41. The same evening Lotz and Pradinuk boarded the plane, TV broadcasters announced the NBA was suspending its season after a Utah Jazz player, Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for COVID-19.
• • •
Lotz remembers when he first found out he had liver disease. He and his wife were newlyweds in 1974 when he woke up one morning sweating so profusely the bedsheets were soaked.
A trip to the doctor eventually led to a liver biopsy, which revealed that his liver was damaged. He felt no major symptoms over the years, and with doctor’s care and medication, Lotz continued to live a normal life, working as a department manager at various Safeway stores throughout Winnipeg for 48 years before retiring in 2017. His last day was at the Transcona Safeway on Kildare Avenue as a produce manager. "I’m an apple stacker," he says.
As Lotz aged, though, the liver disease progressed. By August 2019, he had cirrhosis; a series of MRIs also found a tumour on his liver. He underwent radio frequency ablation (RFA) therapy sessions in Winnipeg and Toronto to remove the tumour. It was at that time that his doctor, Dr. David Peretz, suggested he should be put on the waiting list for a liver transplant.
"I had to go through all kinds of tests," Lotz says. "I had an MRI every two months."
He went to Toronto for a final assessment last October and he says his doctor there, Dr. Les Lilly, told him he’d likely have to wait until fall 2020 for transplant surgery, but that his liver was still functioning reasonably well.
• • •
The plane landed at 7 a.m. on March 12 in Toronto. "It was a propeller plane so it took us a while, but it got us there," Lotz says, remembering a trip that included a stop in Thunder Bay for fuel.
They went in right away to Toronto General Hospital. Surgery was set for 6 p.m. It was a lengthy procedure — 11 1/2 hours, doctors told Lotz.
"I had a hernia and they fixed that at the same time," he says. "They joked I was getting a two-for-one."
Lotz said he was on a ventilator after the surgery and as he was coming to, he could hear his brother-in-law talking to him.
Pradinuk and Lotz have known each other for so long, they often joke around, calling each other Johnny.
"In my mind I could hear that it was his voice," Lotz says. "They took the ventilator tube out of my throat and I said, ‘Johnny, am I still alive?’
"He said, ‘You must be, because I’m no angel.’"
• • •
On March 12, the day of Lotz’s liver-transplant surgery, Ontario announced 18 new cases of COVID-19, including Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. Her husband, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said she was going into self-isolation and wasn’t showing any symptoms.
The NHL joined the NBA in suspending its season that same day.
• • •
In the next couple of days, Lotz continued his recovery from surgery, but plans were already in the works to move him out of Toronto.
In the hours and days after transplant surgeries, patients are typically given large doses of anti-rejection medication to prevent the body’s immune system from attacking the new organ. That leaves transplant patients susceptible to everyday germs and viruses.
With COVID-19 cases increasing at an exponential rate in Toronto, hospitals were ramping up preparations to treat coronavirus patients, and they knew Lotz had to go.
"They didn’t want me to be there too long because all hell had broken loose in the world," he said.
The transplant program was unable to arrange for a flight on March 16, four days after his surgery, but an air ambulance came from Edmonton the next day to fly him and Pradinuk back to Winnipeg — this time in a small jet — and he was taken to the Health Sciences Centre to continue his recovery.
One problem: Manitoba Health announced seven more COVID-19 cases in the province on March 17, upping Manitoba’s total to 15. The pandemic had reached Winnipeg too.
"They basically wanted me out of the hospital as soon as they could," Lotz says, adding he’d heard HSC was going to convert the floor he was on into a COVID-19 ward.
• • •
Lotz has been home with Patricia ever since.
"She has been so strong through all of this…" he says over the phone, trying to hold back tears. Only his daughter, Shauna Cornwell, her two children, and brother-in-law Larry have been allowed to visit. His sister and other friends and relatives drop by and shout encouragement from the front door.
"He has faced every challenge and every struggle our family has endured (and there have been many) with a glass-half-full perspective and as a pillar of strength," Cornwell writes in an email. "His story is a prime example of when ‘good things happen to good people.’
"We are so grateful to his donor and his family. Despite the uncertainty of the world around us right now, as a family, our hearts could not be fuller."
Lotz has made many hospital visits for blood tests and doctors’ visits since returning home and knows there are many more to come. Thursday was his latest and he says doctors are happy with how he’s doing; half of the staples from his surgery were removed.
Does he worry about contracting the coronavirus during one of these visits? Again, Lotz remains positive.
"No, not really," he said. "Everywhere I’ve been staff are being really careful."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.