Tony and Michelle Kocsis. Michelle has had two liver transplants and wants other people to have the discussion about organ donation.
Tony and Michelle Kocsis. Michelle has had two liver transplants and wants other people to have the discussion about organ donation. Rob Williams

Saved by two new livers

MICHELLE Kocsis will become a grandmother this month.

She's already a council worker, a dog owner, a wife and a mother to two young women.

Michelle is also the recipient of two liver transplants.

More than a decade ago, she experienced headaches bad enough to instigate a trip to her doctor.

A lucky blood test detecting abnormal liver function was the first hint of a rare disease that inevitably leads to the organ transplant waiting list.

"They diagnosed me, finally, with primary sclerosing cholangitis," Michelle said.

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"It causes infections and inflammation in the bile duct which results in scarring.

"You end up with cirrhosis and then liver failure."

Though she grew up in the Lockyer Valley, Michelle and her family were then living a different life in Tasmania.

But liver transplants are not performed in the tiny island state - the nearest option for Tasmanians waiting for a new liver is to move to Melbourne.

So in 2008, the Kocsis family gave up their Tasmanian home and returned to the Lockyer Valley to await a life-saving transplant at Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital.

The first transplant finally came in October 2009. Her's was one of 185 liver transplants performed that year across Australia.

The split-liver technique meant Michelle was one of two people to benefit from the same donated organ.

Princess Alexandra Hospital is a pioneer of liver transplantation and was the site of the world's very first liver transplant in 1985.

In 1986, hospital staff developed a split-liver technique to save the lives of children. It is now known across the world as the Brisbane Technique.

Three years after that, hospital staff performed the world's first liver transplant with a donor who was still alive.

As the body's only internal organ capable of regenerating, it is possible to take a section of liver from a living donor, often a parent, and transplant it, most often into a sick child.

By 2003 Princess Alexandra Hospital staff were again pioneers, this time as part of the Brisbane team who performed Australia's first triple transplant. One 25-year-old man with cystic fibrosis received a new heart, new lung and new liver.

Tony and Michelle Kocsis. Michelle has undergone a liver transplant. Photo: Rob Williams / The Queensland Times
Tony and Michelle Kocsis. Michelle has undergone a liver transplant. Photo: Rob Williams / The Queensland Times Rob Williams

 

And six years after that, Michelle Kocsis was being told that her first transplant would not be her last.

Complications meant she was in a coma for nine days after her first transplant in 2009 and was staring down a long recovery and further surgery.

"They did tell me straight up that I would need a second one at some point in the future," Michelle said.

But before another liver, Michelle had a life to live.

After six years of being unable to work, she came on board at Lockyer Valley Regional Council's disaster management team in the wake of the 2011 floods.

The region was one of the most heavily damaged in the state.

Disaster would come again in 2013, both for the Lockyer Valley and for Michelle.

It was then that a second lot of historic floods struck in January in the wake of ex-tropical cyclone Oswald.

As the region recovered, Michelle spent the first months of 2013 in and out of hospital with deteriorating health and a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis.

By September, she was back on the waiting list for a new liver.

More than 1000 people are on the official waiting list at any one time. This year, there are an estimated 1700 people on that list.

Three out of four of them are waiting on a new kidney. It is by far the most commonly transplanted organ, with 659 kidney transplants performed in 2014 alone.

Relatively few people will receive other organs. In 2014, 79 people got a new heart and 159 people received new lungs. Four people received both heart and lungs and one person in Australia received a new intestine.

A total 237 people received a new liver. The year before, 252 people across the nation received a new liver.

Michelle Kocsis was told that her first transplant would not be her last.
Michelle Kocsis was told that her first transplant would not be her last.

 

Almost four years to the day after her first transplant, Michelle was one of them.

This time, she came close to breaking a record with her swift post-surgery recovery.

Michelle is now on just one anti-rejection drug and can let six months lapse between clinical visits. It's a luxury she was never able to reach after her first transplant.

"It was a really great match, this one," she said.

"Everything just went perfectly.

"You hear people say how great they feel after the first transplant...and I never actually felt any different.

"But after the second ... now you get why they say I feel so good."<EP>"Pretty much, life is normal now."

The idea of becoming a grandparent was far from her mind a decade ago. She hoped instead just to see her two daughters graduate high school.

"Who would have thought, when we started all this?" she said.

Michelle can often be spotted now spreading the message about organ donation. She has appeared at schools as a guest speaker and regularly brings up the topic to friends and colleagues.

"We were all registered as donors back in the old 'fill out a form' days," she said.

"We had the girls even registered."

She believes people may often avoid making a decision on donation because they believe nothing will happen.

But the fact that two other families had that discussion somewhere, someplace, is the reason Michelle has been able to reclaim her life.

"It sounds so inane when you say 'oh thank you'," she said.

"But there's no other way to express your gratitude."

"Two families have saved my life."

 


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