St. Cloud woman reflects on liver transplant 1 year later

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Bel Kambach's dying liver had maybe seven days left by the time she received a transplant last summer.

She read that assessment in her medical records a month after surgery, but Kambach knew her liver was essentially dead by July 1, 2018.

She was dying, too.

Her transplant took place three weeks later at the Mayo Clinic campus in Scottsdale, Arizona.

"I had already given up that I would make it on time," Kambach said earlier this month in her St. Cloud home. "I just didn't believe it anymore."

As Kambach approaches the year anniversary of her transplant, she talked with the St. Cloud Times about her feelings of bittersweet gratitude.

She continues to live because a 20-year-old stranger agreed to be an organ donor before he died.

"Part of him lives in me, and I live because of him," Kambach said while crying.

Her transplant and recovery have been her occupation for the past year. Kambach is also an assistant professor of hospitality and tourism at St. Cloud State University.

An auto-immune disease called primary biliary cholangitis, or PBC, caused cirrhosis and damaged her liver.

She sought a living liver donor for years. Eighteen volunteers were rejected. And one, well-matched live donor pulled out 11 days before the transplant.

Even with all the painful symptoms that came with her illness, namely extreme itching and pain, Kambach was sad to lose her liver, she said. "I lost something I loved."

At first, Kambach only knew her donor was a young person with a healthy liver, and she reached out to his family to express thanks and learn as much as she could about him.

She wanted to know who he was, what he loved, who loved him. She said she feels lucky that his family responded and told her his name, Mario, that he was short stature and loved to play soccer.

It's not uncommon for transplant recipients to feel survivor's guilt, Kambach said. She is in groups with others who experience it.

Kambach said she feels she inherited some cravings from her donor, because the liver is so involved in digestion. She's been a healthy eater and a vegetarian for years, but is now drawn to french fries and meat.

"The day I see a hamburger or hot dog attractive, I know it's not me anymore," Kambach laughed.

Kambach also feels guilty that her medical ordeals inspired her daughter to pursue a career in medicine.

"I feel like she has chosen because of me," she said. "That wasn't what I wanted for her."

Kambach's daughter Ilse just graduated from Technical High School and, in the same week, from St. Cloud State University with an associate degree. She pursed them simultaneously and will be pre-med at Minnesota State University in Mankato this fall.

Ilse will bring a new family member with her to Mankato — a hairless xolo puppy with a blond mohawk named Ixel.

Bel Kambach has a 4-year-old xolo named Max who has helped her heal, she said.

"Max has been my little nurse."

Kambach has needed nursing in the past year.

Her medications amounted to 47 daily pills right after her transplant, and she's down to five now.

A scar shaped like the Mercedes Benz logo stretches down and across her abdomen.

Right after the transplant, she had a blood clot and needed a second surgery. Recovery was painful, Kambach said. She had to relearn how to do everything, including how to walk.

She's experiencing rejection and has struggled with side effects from different anti-rejection medications. The first type gave her hallucinations, the next made her as shaky as an advanced Parkinson's patient, and the third caused depression and the loss of her thick hair.

"It's been a roller coaster year," Kambach said. "Hopefully, there will be better anti-rejection procedures after my generation."

She has returned to the clinic in Arizona every eight weeks for follow-up care, including placement of stents to prop open arteries. Her donor was bigger than she is, so her medical team has to accommodate for the difference.

With all the changes and challenges, her new liver has never been the problem, she said. Medical staff told her it began working right away, and she had immediate relief from one of her worst symptoms, a painful persistent itch.

"I think I got the liver of an angel," she said. "His liver is just perfect."

Kambach almost turned down the liver right before the transplant, realizing the donor was not much older than her daughter.

"In order for me to live, he had to die," she said.

Organ donors can save the lives of eight people with vital organs alone and help people who need other tissues too.

The need for organ donations far exceeds the number of donors in the U.S. Last year there were less than 37,000 transplants in the country with nearly 114,000 on waiting lists, according to the national Health Resources and Services Administration.

In Minnesota, the wait list for transplants is just over 2,700 said Erin Lilliencrantz, a spokeswoman for LifeSource. And 69% of adults are registered donors in the state.

"I can't think of a greater gift or a greater legacy to leave," Kambach said. "You can continue to live on after you've died."

You can register to become a donor online at DonateLifeMN.org or visit the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

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Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Cloud Times.