When Thomas Burke found out he needed a liver transplant in the early 1980s, he figured it was “no big deal.”
The conversation began in Pittsburgh with Dr. Thomas Starzl, who is widely reputed as the father of organ transplantation. Starzl viewed a massive tumor encapsulating most of Burke’s liver. The tumor was too large to save the liver, and transplantation seemed the only option.
“I said, ‘Great, when can we do that?'” Burke said, laughing as he recalled the discussion. “Being naive at the time was probably good for me. I didn’t know I had to wait for someone to die with a liver that matched up with me. I had never heard of a liver transplant. I knew as little about medicine as anyone you’ll ever meet.”
In a fortunate turn of events, Starzl found a matching liver the very next day and carried out the transplant at Presbyterian University Hospital, which is now UPMC Presbyterian.
The date was July 12, 1981, and it remains significant because Burke became the first adult to undergo a successful liver transplant by Starzl’s team in Pittsburgh. He was 26 years old.
“The landscape of liver transplantation was very different back then,” said Dr. Abhi Humar, UPMC’s chief of transplantation. “There were only a handful of centers performing them. Patients had very few choices of where they could go.”
These days, such procedures are much more refined from procurements to distribution: There have been about 144,000 liver transplants in the United States since 1988, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
“I found out after the surgery that I probably only had a few weeks to live,” Burke said. “There was a lot of luck involved but mostly good work by the medical staff here.”
Now 61, Burke, a Squirrel Hill resident, recently celebrated 35 years with his liver. During that time, he moved to Pittsburgh from New Jersey, met his wife, Helene, through a personal ad, fathered two children and got a job with a financial advisory and restructuring company, The Clear Thinking Group.
When he first became ill, Burke worked as a financial analyst on Wall Street. One evening, he experienced what he thought were severe muscle spasms in his upper abdomen. He drove himself to a nearby emergency room for testing and was initially told he had a liver tumor that needed to be removed. A family friend recommended Starzl in Pittsburgh.
“I was in the hospital for about a month after the transplant,” he said. “I lost a ton of weight. And then I started to recover.”
The day before leaving the hospital, then-transplant coordinator Sandra Staschak-Chicko reminded Burke to keep taking his anti-rejection drugs.
“I asked her, ‘What if I forget?’ ” Burke recalled. “She said, ‘Oh no, you won’t ever forget.'”
He never did.
While the anti-rejection drugs help keep him alive, Burke suspects they later contributed to kidney failure.
He underwent a kidney transplant from a live donor 17 years ago.
“Various things have gone wrong, but for the most part, I am feeling fine,” he said.
He and his wife became friends with Staschak-Chicko, who is now development director for the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute in Pittsburgh. When Burke met her, she carried the donor list on index cards in the pocket of her scrubs.
“Our original relationship was professional of course, but over time it evolved into a real family friendship that is forever galvanized by our collective experiences,” she said. “It’s a celebration — after his liver transplant he’s living a full life. Simply having patients survive was never our end goal. It was to restore them back to health so they could live a normal life, and Tom has done just that.”
Burke also maintained a relationship with Starzl, who is 90, throughout the years.
“I think his self-assured, very calm demeanor transferred over to me,” Burke said. “He’s probably the most amazing, interesting person I have ever met.
Starzl, who lives in Pittsburgh, could not be reached.
“It was luck that I came to see Dr. Starzl. I may have missed that liver that was a perfect match had I not met him,” Burke said.
One detail that has always tugged at Burke is learning the identity of his liver donor. He tried but never made any progress.
He wrote a letter to the donor’s family and delivered it to UNOS, hoping they could make a connection. Nobody ever replied.
He’s also sympathetic to the thousands of people awaiting lifesaving organ transplants.
“I’m sure that is extremely difficult. Another day goes by and another day, and you want the problem to be fixed and addressed,” Burke said. “To some degree, this is partially luck and chance.”
There are 15,000 Americans waiting for liver transplants, according to UNOS.
“Here in Pittsburgh, the average wait times have increased significantly,” Humar said. “We don’t have enough organs for everyone.”
A major game changer came in the form of living liver transplants, in which donors give a portion of their livers to people in need. The first such transplant was performed in the United States in 1996 and 1999 in Pittsburgh, Humar said.
At the time of his transplant, Burke did not realize he was a novelty. Now he’s proud to say that he has lived longer with his new liver than with his original.
“Sometimes, it seems like it was yesterday, and sometimes, it seems like a long time ago,” he said. “But I’m still here, and I plan on sticking around for more.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or [email protected]