Family House Diaries: Anna’s Wish: A New Liver for a New Life

This is the fourth in a series from UNC Health Care that focuses on the stories of UNC Hospitals patients and their families who live in the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals while receiving or awaiting treatment.

For Anna W. Barnhill, the third telephone call was the charm. It brought news of a new liver for a new life.

Barnhill, 40, of Clarkton, N.C., a long-time math teacher at East Bladen High School, had lived 12 years with non-alcoholic cirrhosis.  The disease was dormant and stable until September when extreme fatigue, memory loss, migraines and fluid retention began clouding Barnhill’s days.

“I didn’t connect those symptoms with the cirrhosis,” Barnhill said.  “I lost a good six months of my life and by January, 60 pounds.  I still taught school, but not without a pillow and a heating pad.”

Under long-term care by gastroenterologists at New Hanover Hospital in Wilmington and UNC Hospitals, Barnhill learned in February that her diseased liver was compromising other body functions and a liver transplant was recommended.  By May, she was on the list.

In early May a staph infection and pneumonia hospitalized her, and on May 25, Barnhill was transferred to UNC Hospitals.  She was nearing end-stage liver disease and undergoing continuous dialysis because her kidneys had failed.

The first call came in late June, but Barnhill’s hopes died when the potential liver tested unhealthy for transplant.  A second call, a few days later, yielded the same disappointing results.

“In addition to being physically sick, I was growing depressed and I was scared,” said Barnhill, the mother of 11-year-old Dennis and 5-year-old Lindsey. Barnhill and her husband, Tim, 42, continued to find strength from their family’s strong faith.

On July 6 the third call came and following a nearly nine-hour surgery led by Alexander Toledo, M.D., assistant professor of surgery in the division of abdominal transplant surgery in the Department of Surgery at the UNC School of Medicine, Barnhill had a healthy new liver, from a young donor.

“Thankfully, I don’t remember any of the surgery,” Barnhill said.  “We don’t know the donor, and that’s OK.  God knows who it is and what matters is that it was the right one.”

And timing was everything, Dr. Toledo said.

“The sickest patients work their way to the top of the transplant list, and Anna was at the top,” Dr. Toledo said.  “Her liver and kidneys had failed, and she was nearing the end of the line. About 2,000 people a year die on the list waiting for a liver transplant.  As sick as she was, we were concerned and hopeful she would get a healthy liver in time. She hung in there and did.”

Within days of her liver transplant Anna’s kidney function improved, and her liver function tests returned within normal limits. By July 31 she was receiving twice-weekly outpatient physical therapy to regain strength and endurance in her arms and legs.

She was released to the SECU (State Employees’ Credit Union) Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness and trauma and their family member caretakers.  Tim Barnhill, a nursing assistant on disability, has lived at SECU Family House since May.

“It’s a good place for solitude and serenity, a sure place for healing,” Anna said.  “We have some independence and autonomy, but there’s comfort in knowing we’re near the transplant team if we need them.”

Anna and Tim returned home on Aug. 14, well in advance of Lindsey’s first day of kindergarten and the couples’ 21st anniversary on Sept. 3. Her physical therapy will continue with local resources coordinated by her transplant team. At best, she expects to return to the classroom in a year.

“We have been blessed a whole lot, and Tim and I have grown up and shared every one of the blessings,” Anna said.  Beyond the liver donor, the transplant team and SECU Family House, the blessings list includes extended family in Clarkton who have cared for Dennis and Lindsey and brought them to visit; their church family from Clarkton First Baptist who have called, sent cards and visited; her students at East Bladen who organized a fund-raiser that netted $5,000; and the teachers and staff at East Bladen who donated leave time – about 70 days – so Anna wouldn’t lose pay.

“And we consider my disability another part of God’s plan,” Tim added.  “I’m able to be here in Chapel Hill with and for Anna. We knew this was where she needed to be, and we had no doubt about transferring her here.”

Early on, their church family had told the Barnhills that regardless of when they got home, they could count on having meals prepared for 30 days.

“You can’t ask for anything more than that,” Anna said.

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