‘I had the chance to save his life’: Lancashire teenager donates part of his liver to save critically ill dad
After Warren Jones underwent the liver transplant surgery he so badly required, his family and friends were allowed to indulge in a positive outlook for the first time in months. But any jubilation was short-lived: Warren’s body rejected the new organ. He got worse. Thoughts turned to the unthinkable.
Having lived with a long-term condition which has affected his organ function for most of his adult life, Warren’s health began to deteriorate in 2021, his condition slowly worsening until doctors had no other option. He was put on the waiting list for an organ transplant and placed under medical supervision in the meantime.
“I was aware of his condition growing up, but it didn’t massively affect him,” says Warren’s son Sam. “He was just dad to me. It was only in the last few years that it started to impact him more - he lost weight, became jaundiced, and was tired all the time. Even though he needed a transplant, which is about as severe as it gets, the situation was never desperate.
“It was always just a case of him being on the waiting list for a new liver rather than him needing one right away,” he adds. “Because of that, we were always hopeful that he’d be fine once he had surgery because that’s what the doctors were saying. We waited 10 months, which isn’t that long compared to others - some people wait years. We were lucky.
“When they reached out saying they had a donor, we were hopeful,” explains Sam, from Blackpool. “But then everything got a lot more distressing after surgery.”
After undergoing the procedure at Leeds General Infirmary, Warren’s body rejected the new organ, leading to him becoming seriously ill. After losing a significant amount of weight and growing weaker each day, Warren - just 46 at the time - spent much of the lead-up to Christmas 2021 in hospital, unable to receive many visitors due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“While no one quite said that it hadn’t worked, we could see that things were going wrong,” says Sam, 18. “That was quite worrying and it was all we could think about at the time. It really wasn’t nice to see dad like that and, while we stayed hopeful, it was always in the back of our minds that he could easily not make it. We just didn’t know what was going to happen.
“My mum’s a hospice nurse as well, so she’s seen hundreds of cases where people go too young,” he adds. “That was a real possibility; not everybody has the luxury of growing old. It was hard to see him after his body rejected the liver because suddenly he was pretty helpless and couldn’t do anything to make things better.
“It’s not often you see your dad like that, is it? Everything around it too - Covid, it being Christmas, not being able to visit - made it harder, too. He was over in Leeds, so mum would spend like four nights a week over there and, once he was back on his feet and allowed off the ward, me and my sister would go and meet them for a brew in the hospital foyer.”
With Warren slightly better, the family was able to spend Christmas Day and New Year’s together. Meanwhile, doctors had advised that a search for a live donor be started. Some 15 of Warren’s close friends and family immediately came forward, but unfortunately most had to be ruled out as candidates. Attention turned to Warren’s closest male blood relatives.
“After the first surgery, they wanted to explore live donors because, statistically, they have a higher success rate because they’re fresh organs,” says Sam. “And a genetic match gives you the best chance, so it was in the back of everyone’s mind that the best bet would be me. As soon as it became apparent that I was the best option, I was in. No question about it.
“There was no debate; it was something that I was always going to do,” he adds. “I’d have done it the first time had I been 18 at the time. We were waiting to hear about a date for surgery and had two planned surgeries cancelled before January 11th, when we got the go-ahead. I’d never had surgery in my life before, so I was a little nervous beforehand.
“When they told me it was definitely happening, it became very overwhelming very quickly. It was like ‘oh sh*t, here we go, this is what we’ve been waiting for’. But I had the chance to help my dad - I was more worried he was going to back out! It wasn’t nice for him to have me do what I did; it’s not something a father wants for his son.
“But, ultimately, I'm an adult who made that decision, which he understood,” he continues. “They told us we had the beds at 8pm on the day and, by half-past, I was asleep. It was a big surgery for both of us - I could've ended up needing a transplant myself if my liver function hadn’t returned to normal, which is why they’d not gone for a live donor first time.”
When he came round, Sam remembers being groggy from the painkillers and anaesthetic, but acutely wary of getting his hopes up given what his father had been through previously. Thankfully, the early signs were promising.
“When I came to, my dad was still under - he didn’t wake up until about midnight and, by then, I was on all sorts too, so I didn’t have a clue!” says Sam. “They couldn’t say it was successful straight away but, over the week, things were heading the right way. It was still worrying because you’re never certain, but everyday was more promising.”
Sam spent the next six days in hospital, managing to stand up and tentatively walk about just a day after surgery. Taking things at his own pace, he nevertheless had six months off work from his job in manufacturing, but was soon able to join his dad on the long and arduous road to full recovery.
“If anything, he recovered slightly quicker than me!” says Sam with a chuckle. “We’ve made progress every day, but I’ve still got to take it easy with things like the gym - I can’t go chucking weights around like I could six months ago. Eventually, I’ll be 100% back to where I was before the operation because your liver grows back to its full size and dad’s will, too.
“But, every now and then, I notice little things, mainly during exercise,” he adds. “Any ab stuff is a no-go because they sliced right through the abdominal wall. But seeing my dad back is fantastic. It’s everything we’ve wanted for a few years now. His whole outlook on life has changed too - he’s a lot more positive now that the darker days are behind us now.
“That’s the most rewarding thing,” Sam explains. “I think back to when I found out I was a match for my dad and had the opportunity to save his life. I was just relieved. And, if our story encourages just one more family to have a conversation on organ donation and their wishes, then I will be so proud.”