Jennifer Boyd has three children. Savannah is 27, Jacob is 26, and Emma is 20. All three happen to be adopted, and one happened to be the perfect match for a liver transplantation that would save Jennifer’s life.
“In my 20s and 30s, I went to school a lot … searching, trying to figure out what I really wanted in life,” Jennifer shared. During that time, she was learning and teaching … in Virginia and Florida and in a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona. “But I always really wanted kids – that was above everything else,” she says.
Jennifer felt fortunate to learn through relatives about adoption opportunities close to home. She adopted Savannah and Jacob as toddlers. Emma joined the family five years later. “I got to see Emma a couple hours after she was born.”
For many years, Jennifer and her three children felt fortunate to live abroad in places like the Azores in Portugal, South Korea, Germany and Italy. Jennifer was working as an assessor and teacher for the Department of Defense Education Activity, which operates schools for military families.
“I was in Naples when I started to get sick,” she remembered. “It was just weird. We went on vacation and rented some bikes. When I got on mine, I thought something was wrong with it. But we went on riding and I don’t know how many times I crashed!” She didn’t realize at the time she was suffering from hepatic encephalopathy, a brain disorder that develops in some individuals with cirrhosis of the liver.
Jennifer began feeling sick and off balance toward the end of 2010. “It got to the point where I was really tired and remembering things became very difficult.” She decided to seek medical care in Florida, where she had been living prior to moving out of the country. But she wasn’t accurately diagnosed until the end of 2015. It was a long, frustrating period of suffering.
“I think the fact that I don’t drink or smoke kept everyone from considering cirrhosis. I was diagnosed with neuropathy, fibromyalgia and even MS.” Then, finally, Jennifer says, she went to “this local little ER” – which is now Cleveland Clinic Martin South Hospital, in Stuart, Florida – where she had bloodwork done. “The doctor came back and says, ‘You have cirrhosis.’ He took one look at the lab results and he knew immediately.”
Jennifer was referred to Xaralambos Zervos, DO, Associate Director, Abdominal Transplant Institute, and chair and medical director, Liver Transplantation Program, at Cleveland Clinic Florida’s Weston Hospital. Medication helped Jennifer, but it became clear she would need a transplant. “It got to a point that my liver couldn’t filter anymore. I had to go to the hospital every week so they could drain 12 to 15 pounds of fluid. … It became clear I would die if I didn’t get a live liver transplant.
Jennifer had several friends volunteer to be her donor, but for different medical reasons, they didn’t qualify. Savannah and Jacob had health challenges that eliminated them from consideration, as well. A cousin, Theresa, went through the extensive testing process and was a possibility but she was almost 60. Emma turned out to be the perfect match.
“My mother had the same thing and it killed her three years ago,” Jennifer shared. “My great-grandmother had cirrhosis, too, and she didn’t drink at all. And I have another cousin who has it, and she doesn’t drink. So in our case, it’s obviously hereditary. But nobody thought about it until I needed a transplant. I told my kids, I was sure glad they didn’t get my genes.”
Emma ultimately gave her mom 60% of her liver in October 2022, saving and changing Jennifer’s life. Agreeing to be tested was her Christmas gift to her mom a year prior. “I just felt so strongly in my heart that it was going to be me,” Emma says. “I love it. I would so do it again.”
The big scar was a tough pill to swallow for the young future nurse, though. “My mom would never let me wear a bikini and now finally she doesn’t care. But it’s a beautiful scar, people tell me.”
“We couldn’t have asked for better care,” Jennifer emphasized. ”I joked with the nursing staff that they never go home. Dr. (Antonio) Pinna, Dr. (Nikhil) Kapila and Dr. Zervos … my coordinator … were all great.”
“I really love them,” Emma added. “They are like my family. As soon as I learned I made it into the nursing program, I told them, and when I got my first scrubs, I sent them a picture.” (Emma also raved about the food, believe it or not, especially the waffles!)
Liver transplant patients endure a lot, for a long time, according to Dr. Zervos. “There are recurrent hospitalizations, so patients often lose their employment and COBRA expires. The process is a slow, steady decline that can debilitate the patient and family. As a transplant center, we occasionally pick up expenses for patients. Or there might be a month or two where the anti-rejection drugs co-pay changes, and they have to be covered. We don’t want the patient to end up losing the organ because of insurance or transient personal circumstances that require temporary financial support.”
Donors help with these expenses and support the educational training and development of staff, according to Dr. Zervos. “Transplantation is very complicated. It takes one to two years for nurses, fellows and advanced practitioners to really get comfortable enough to make decisions and interact with patients independently. As a growing transplant center, we’re constantly hiring and training.”
Research is another area that benefits from philanthropy, he adds. “Thanks to research, we’re now using organ perfusion machines, which means organs that once would have been discarded can now be treated and used successfully,” says Dr. Zervos. “But perfusion machines have disposable filtration devices that cost as much as $35,000 each. We truly couldn’t do the lifesaving work we do without the generosity of our donors.”
Digestive Disease & Surgery Institute