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Siblings keep close tabs after living donor transplant

Local high-school teacher and coach Jason Korkosz had never heard of a living liver donor until shortly before he became one — for his sister, Kristen Batkiewicz.

Korkosz, a self-described “very careful, very protective person,” especially regarding his health, said the prospect of donating a portion of his liver “was a little scary at first.”

But Korkosz said he decided to help his sister regain her health after discussing the surgery’s success rate and other details of the living liver donation process. Key to his decision was his faith in University of Chicago Medicine’s doctors and their expertise, as well as their diligence in making sure that he was fully on board.

“If I had to do it again, I would,” he said. “To save the life of someone you truly love is very important.”

In 1989, UChicago Medicine performed the first living donor liver transplant in the United States — the first successful transplant of its kind in the world.

And, of course, family devotion prevailed.

“My sister needed a liver and that’s all there was to it,” said Korkosz, 35, who teaches physical and drivers’ education and coaches football and track at Argo Community High School in southwest suburban Summit.

Batkiewicz, 39, a sixth-grade English language arts teacher at Simmons Middle School in southwest suburban Oak Lawn, had struggled with digestive issues — diagnosed as Crohn’s Disease — for 23 years. She had lived on a diet of bread, pretzels and plain pasta in her teens, was hospitalized four times during her teens and early 20s, and had to have almost all of her large intestine removed six years ago.

Batkiewicz also suffers from primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC, a disease that causes inflammation and scarring of the bile ducts, which carry digestive fluids (bile) from the liver to the gallbladder. Over time, bile builds up and damages the liver, eventually causing it to fail.

She learned of her new challenge after a routine liver biopsy in 2017 showed cirrhosis. She had grown tired, but chalked it up to being a working mom, since her now 6-year-old daughter, Grace, was then 3.

Then two years ago, Batkiewicz was hospitalized twice in two months, each time for a week.

“My doctor said, ‘Your liver is failing,’” Batkiewicz said.

The good news was that her liver’s pipes and ducts remained in good shape despite the damaged tissue — making Batkiewicz a candidate for a living liver transplant.

Batkiewicz first rejected the idea that a family member would be the best, most genetically matched donor.

“I said, ‘No way.’”

Doctors told her she had no time to spare.

More than 13,000 people are on the waiting list for a new liver from a deceased donor in this country. Because the need for donor organs far exceeds the number of livers available for transplant, about 1,500Americans die each year while waiting.

A living donation provides a transplant option for patients with severe liver disease, said UChicago Medicine liver disease specialist Dr. Helen Te.

Korkosz, a lifelong athlete and power weightlifter (he coaches his own best high school sport, the pole vault, and won the Mr. EIU bodybuilding competition when he was in college at Eastern Illinois University), met the rigorous donor requirements, such as age, blood type, mental health and being a non-smoker and modest, sensible drinker.

Batkiewicz said it took her a while to accept the circumstances.

“I was worried about my brother, my parents and my family,” she said. “ButI had such trust in my doctors. I knew these surgeons would do such a fantastic job.”

Liver transplant surgeons Dr. Talia Baker and Dr.Diego di Sabato performed the surgery to remove the right lobe of Korkosz’s liver — about two-thirds of the organ. The two-step “hybrid” procedure combined a minimally invasive laparoscopic technique with open surgery to reduce postoperative pain, risk of complications and recovery time.

In an operating room down the hall, transplant surgeon Dr. John Fung removed Batkiewiez’s diseased liver and replaced it with Korkosz’s healthy lobe.

Doctors placed the siblings in rooms on the opposite ends of the same hospital floor after the Oct. 29, 2019 surgery. That boosted their determination to start walking so they could see each other. They continue to stay in constant touch.

Korkosz, who has a 5-inch scar between his sternum and belly button, started lifting light weights two months after the surgery.

His liver regenerated to 60 percent after about four weeks, 80 percent after three months, and to 95 percent after six months. He couldn’t drink alcohol during the recovery, ate lots of spinach and green vegetables and refrained from foods that would make his liver work harder.

He’s now energized by being a new dad to his 5-week-old son, Kade.

Batkiewicz, who has returned to teaching over Zoom, said she wanted to show her daughter that she is strong, and credited her husband, Kyle, and her support groups at her church and school with boosting her spirits. Her friends, family and coworkers sent steady supplies of food, gift cards and care packages, along with their prayers.

“Chronic pain and fatigue had become my norm,” she said. “With a new liver, I felt healthy and energized for the first time in a long time.”

She now tells others in similar circumstances to accept the generosity of a living organ donation and to recognize that “our families are there to love and support us.

“They’re put through large and small sacrifices,” she said. “It is their decision to do this for you. If your family member — as worried as you are — is making this choice, respect their decision and accept the help and that they’re going to be your living donor. Think positively the whole time.”

And Batkiewicz believes in prayer.

“Praying gives you space and an outlet for putting your concerns somewhere,” she said, “rather than have them eat you up.”