Army Veteran Timothy Yablonski received a portion of liver from his stepdaughter Alyssa Last in 2020, making history as VA’s first living-donor liver transplant.
More than a year into his recovery, Yablonski says he can now “do things I haven’t done in years.” He has gained weight and the strength to take up activities such as putting up Christmas decorations, enclosing a front porch to keep mosquitos at bay, exercising daily, and even clearing snow.
“I mean, not that I enjoy it, but I can do it,” said Yablonski, 55, who relied on a neighbor to run the snow blower before he received his new liver. “I’m alive and I praise God because I’m able to.”
Liver transplants can have excellent outcomes and recipients have been known to live normal lives for over 30 years after an operation. During the first year after a liver transplant, patients are constantly monitored and must follow a specific care plan for their recovery, including nutrition and individualized medications.
Patients must take many medications after a liver transplant, some to prevent rejection of the new organ, some to fight infection, and others to treat side effects of the anti-rejection medicine. As patients heal, their medications often decrease, although nearly all patients take anti-rejection medicine for the rest of their lives.
Most patients remain in the hospital for a couple weeks after their transplant, then continue recovery at home. Some patients can return to their jobs and certain activities after about three months.
Yablonski walks on a treadmill every morning and accompanies his wife, Pam, and their dogs to a nearby park. Pam Yablonski said until the transplant, she’d never seen her husband make a point to exercise.
“Now he’s running circles around me,” Pam Yablonski said.
The New York couple even hosted Last for a visit in September, right around the same time as Timothy Yablonski’s birthday and their six-month checkup. Last, of Florida, secretly arranged the visit with Pam Yablonski and an aunt. The aunt met Last at the airport and had her hide in the back of a van. When the van pulled up, the aunt asked Tim Yablonski to unload it.
“He’s talking and talking and opens the van and finally turns and says, are you kidding me?” said Pam Yablonski. “He was so surprised; you should have seen his face. It was awesome!”
Yablonski’s living-donor liver transplant (LDLT) in March 2020 was the first of its kind for VA, made possible through a collaboration between VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and UPMC. Since then, VA Pittsburgh has performed one other LDLT, according to Lindsey Herlinger, transplant administrator. She anticipates even more in the future.
VA Pittsburgh is one of 15 total VA transplant centers and is currently the only one offering LDLT services. Any Veteran eligible for VA care in the country who needs a liver transplant has the option of a living donor.
“Our hope is to ensure all Veterans in need of a liver transplant are aware of the LDLT option through our program,” said Herlinger.
The Yablonskis are grateful VA – and their faith – came through for them.
“He’s alive and we’re so thankful for that,” said Pam Yablonski. “God kept him alive so long the way he was. There’s no answer they can give, other than this being a miracle.”
Writer’s note: All Veterans enrolled for VA health care are eligible for consideration for transplant services. If you are interested in these services, talk with your primary care provider about a referral.