Son Gives Part of Liver to Save Dad

John Barnes joined 17,000 other patients waiting for liver transplants

John Barnes joined 17,000 other patients waiting for liver transplants

Parents give of themselves so their children can live. Michigan resident John Barnes’ son returned the favor.

Barnes had cirrhosis of the liver, and he needed a transplant to survive. His name went on a list with about 17,000 patients, each one desperately waiting for a donated liver. The grim statistic is that 1,500 people die each year waiting. There are just not enough donors.

He hated the thought that someone would have to die in order for him to get a liver.

“How could anyone wish for that to happen?” he asked.

But there was another way.

Barnes’ doctors told him that a healthy liver segment could regenerate into a full organ. If a living donor shared just part of a liver, both the donor and the recipient could end up whole and healthy.

Living donors, however, are even harder to find than cadavers.

There are often better odds of finding a match within a family, but Barnes told his four children not to be tested.

Lucky for him, his youngest disobeyed.

Brian Barnes, who was 23 years old and working in Washington D.C., went through the assessment without his dad knowing. When the hospital suggested that losing weight would maximize his chances of passing the screening, he dropped 25 pounds in just six weeks.

John Barnes with his youngest son Brian, when the latter was just a toddler.

John Barnes with his youngest son Brian, when the latter was just a toddler.

“To just stand by and not be a donor would have been too heavy a weight on my shoulders, not to help,” the son said. “He has always been there for me so this seemed like the least I could do.”

Barnes was elated to hear that a donor was found. Without a transplant soon, doctors said, there was a 15% chance he would not survive three more months.

But when he learned the donor was his youngest son, he said he felt overwhelming guilt and fear.

“I was shocked. I was concerned about the risk to him. I just spent months, perhaps a year wondering who was alive that was going to die in order for me to live, and now it was my son who was lining up,” he said. “It was an overwhelming complex range of emotions that night, and a lot of tears.”

Barnes’ doctors assured him the procedure was worth the risk. But the father still worried about his son.

“Looking into Brian’s eyes as medical staff prepared to wheel him into surgery, I held the hand I gripped the day he was born — a little boy’s hand that would now engulf mine — to assure him all would be well. His eyes said the same,” John wrote in his first person account of this experience.

The operation was a success. The son moved back home to recover with dad. Now they are bonding over who is healing faster.

“He has a scar to remind him what he gave me, and I have a much larger scar to remind me that he saved my life.” Barnes said. “This is something that we are going to share forever.”