Three-year wait for new liver was 'an emotional roller coaster'
Relief for couple as liver cancer-stricken husband gets suitable donor after waiting for years
For more than three years, he led a life of pain while hoping that a suitable liver donor could be found.
Mr Jason Mah, 35, had cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer. This left him jaundiced and with a stomach bloated with fluids which kept him in constant agony.
The former bartender and his wife, Ms Serene Koh, were given the devastating diagnosis in December 2011.
They had only been married in January that year.
Ms Koh, 28, told The New Paper: "My mind just went blank."
Doctors at the National University Hospital (NUH) told Ms Koh to prepare for the worst if a suitable donor could not be found within five years.
Last year, Ms Koh, a human resource assistant, was so desperate that she turned to the media and online sources for help.
Fortunately, there was some glimmer of hope. After TNP featured their predicament last November, over 40 people came forward as potential donors.
Report from The New Paper, Nov 5 2014
But finding a suitable donor is not simple. This is because donors have to meet many criteria, and none of those who offered to help were suitable for Mr Mah. (See report above.)
Then in January this year, it seemed that their prayers had been answered - a potential donor was found.
However, it was not meant to be.
According to Ms Koh, Mr Mah was warded and prepared for surgery. At the last minute came news that the potential donor was not a match after all.
"Naturally we were very disappointed but there was nothing we could do," Ms Koh recounted.
To make matters worse, as a side effect of his illness, Mr Mah often suffered from severe personality changes. Sometimes, he seemed to be another person altogether and would even become uncontrollable.
"Sometimes I would have to hold him down even if the nurses wanted to do minor procedures like taking his blood pressure," Ms Koh said.
She also said that at times, all she could do to help manage her husband's pain was to stay by his bed and hold his hand.
On May 1, their prayers were finally answered.
Ms Koh recounted: "The doctors told us on Labour Day that a match (had been) found. Things moved very fast. (The doctors) informed us at about 8pm and he was in the operating theatre at 9pm.
"About 5am the next day, the doctors came out to tell us that the operation was successful."
Unfortunately, the couple's problems were not over yet.
The day after the surgery, Mr Mah started bleeding internally and had to go under the knife again. The day after that, he was in the operating theatre again for internal bleeding.
"It was an emotional roller coaster," said Ms Koh. "Even after the transplant procedure was over, I could not fully accept that he had finally received a successful liver transplant.
"Not even the doctor's okay was enough. I was not assured at that point that he would turn out fine."
Thankfully, Mr Mah's condition improved and he was discharged from NUH on June 5.
Although he still requires some help to walk, the man, who at one point struggled to finish his sentences, was smiling and able to crack jokes.
That said, life will never be back to what it was as Mr Mah will be always have to be on medication.
The pills - while allowing his body to accept the new liver - leave his immune system open to attack. He is also advised to stay away from crowds as there is a high risk of catching an infectious disease.
Nevertheless, the couple are thankful that the dark days are over, and they are thankful to those that came forward as potential donors and of course, to the eventual donor.
When asked if she was prepared for her husband to not make it, Ms Koh took a while before answering: "A part of me was prepared for that. I was aware of all the possibilities.
"But I just could not accept it."
For Mr Mah, being able to spend time with his wife outside of the hospital is good enough for him.
He said: "I'm not asking for the 'good life', I just want a normal life."
Liver transplant only cure for cirrhosis
Mr Jason Mah was diagnosed with cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and primary liver cancer.
Dr Kieron Lim, a consultant at the National University Centre for Organ Transplantation at the National University Hospital, said the only curative treatment for cirrhosis is a liver transplant.
He added: "Mr Mah's 'new' liver is working well and the results from his liver tests are now normal."
Mr Mah's surgeon, Dr Alfred Kow,said the eight-hour operation went well.
There were two small episodes of internal bleeding after the operation, but they were handled swiftly.
Dr Lim said Mr Mah has to be on regular medication to prevent his body from rejecting the new liver.
He will also need to go for regular medical appointments and blood tests, and adhere to a healthy lifestyle, comprising regular exercise and a well-balanced diet.
What does it take to be an organ donor?
FOR LIVE DONORS
Potential donors must be healthy, with no illnesses and history of medication. For the liver transplant to be feasible, the donor and recipient should be about the same size (in terms of body mass index or body weight) and have the same blood group.
Prospective donors have to undergo several forms of screening such as blood tests, X-rays and CT scans. Those found to be suitable will be further assessed by a National Transplant Ethics Committee, which will decide if a transplant can take place.
FOR DECEASED DONORS
In these cases, the National Transplant Ethics Committee is not involved, said Dr Alfred Kow, Mr Jason Mah's surgeon and consultant at the National University Centre for Organ Transplantation, National University Hospital.
When a potential donor in Singapore is identified, the hospital will notify the transplant coordinator from the National Organ Transplant Unit in the Ministry of Health.
The coordinator will work with the hospital to complete the certification of brain death. After that, the case will be referred to the transplant team and an allocation process.
Criteria considered include blood group, body weight and severity of the patient's disease.