A transplant unites 2 Pennsylvania families

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MOUNTVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Mike Shaub is home.

The 48-year-old salesman returned to Mountville on Saturday, just 12 days after his failing liver was removed at University of Pennsylvania Hospital and replaced with a healthy organ donated by the family of a 2012 Warwick High School graduate who died Sept. 29, following a fall while visiting friends at Temple University.

Shaub was home only two days before he traveled to Lititz Moravian Cemetery, where he laid a single lavender rose on the grave of Landon Nuss — the 19-year-old who gave Shaub a new lease on life.

"He's my brother," Shaub, with tear-filled eyes, said of Nuss.

Kim Shaub, Mike Shaub's wife of nine years, said she and the rest of Mike's family are acutely aware that his opportunity to once again live a healthy life came at great cost to — and sacrifice by — Nuss' family.

"Landon is a hero — he's our hero," Kim Shaub said. "He will always be part of our family."

TWISTS AND TURNS

The story of how Shaub came to receive the liver of a 19-year-old he never met is one with many twists and turns.

At the center is a dark part of Shaub's life that he says cost him a good job, hurt his family and friends and wrecked a healthy organ.

"I'm basically an alcoholic," Shaub said. "My whole deal is because of alcohol."

Shaub's drinking started when he was a student at Warwick High School, where he played football and graduated in 1983.

He got married and had two daughters, Carrie, 22, and Katie, 19, but kept on drinking.

He divorced and married Kim, who has a daughter, 19-year-old Brianna Eavenson.

Shaub's drinking continued, and ultimately cost him a "really good job" in the field of industrial sales.

"I was a functioning alcoholic," he said. "I wasn't on a bar stool every night. I wasn't in the gutter. I was a sneak."

Vodka was Shaub's drink of choice, he said, because he thought no one could smell it.

"That's a bunch of bull," he said. "You can tell."

Four years ago, Shaub started getting sick, and he was diagnosed with fibrosis — "excessive accumulation of scar tissue that results from ongoing inflammation and liver cell death," according to liversupport.com.

The liver performs a number of vital functions — one of which is to remove toxins from the body, said Alexandra Gibas, a hepatologist with Regional Gastroenterology Associates of Lancaster.

Alcohol travels through the bloodstream to the liver, where it kills liver cells.

"You can live with one kidney, but you can't live without a liver," Gibas said.

Shaub said doctors told him that if he quit drinking, his liver would recover from the fibrosis.

But he didn't quit until May 2012, after he was diagnosed with cirrhosis.

"Once it gets to that point, it's beyond repair," Shaub said.

He started having all kinds of problems, the most serious of which manifested in October 2012, when he drove to a football game at Warwick High School, where he's been a volunteer coach for 15 years.

Shaub blacked out during the drive — not from drinking, he said. Rather, he blacked out due to an excessive buildup of ammonia in his body caused by his liver not adequately getting rid of waste.

After that, there was no more driving. That also meant no more working or coaching.

"I haven't worked since last January," he said.

Around that same time, Shaub's doctors at Lancaster Gastroenterology Inc. referred him to the transplant program at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.

Doctors there assessed his condition and insisted he complete a 10-week, group counseling session aimed at addiction.

Shaub attended those sessions at Lancaster Freedom Center, and then continued with one-on-one counseling after he finished the group program.

That's when he had an epiphany.

"I don't want anything," he said of alcohol. "I don't even desire it. I know what life's like without lying. It's so much better to wake up not having to cover up a lie from yesterday."

Two key actions earlier this year set the path for Shaub to cross paths with Landon Nuss.

The first was a June 1 walk-a-thon for liver disease organized in Shaub's honor in Lititz by his two daughters.

The other was when Shaub's former brother-in-law, Todd Shertzer, offered to give up part of his liver for Shaub.

It turned out Shertzer's liver wasn't suitable, but that move put Shaub on the regional list of prospective liver transplant recipients.

"Before that, I had been on a waiting list to get on the waiting list," Shaub said. "Besides my liver, I was pretty healthy, so there were a lot of people who were sicker than me."

GOOD FRIENDS

Shaub's daughter, Katie, is good friends with Landon Nuss' cousin, Morgan Eshleman.

Katie Shaub also was in the same class as Landon at Warwick.

It was Katie Shaub who received word Sept. 28 that Landon had been gravely injured the night before, when he fell two stories inside an apartment building just off Temple University's campus, while visiting friends there.

"Katie told us about it, and we just tried to support her," Kim Shaub said. "But the thought of a transplant never even crossed our minds."

As it became clear to the Nuss family that Landon was not going to live, his parents, Tina and Steve, were asked by representatives of Gift of Life — the federally designated nonprofit organization that coordinates organ and tissue transplants for eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware — if they knew of anyone who could benefit from any of Landon's organs.

Landon registered to be an organ donor when he first got his driver's license three years earlier.

Devastated and dealing with overwhelming grief, Tina said the couple vaguely remembered something about a recent event involving a local man who needed a liver.

Through discussions with other relatives, they came up with Shaub's name, and the Eshlemans contacted Katie Shaub.

Katie Shaub called her dad the morning of Sept. 29 and told him what was happening.

"We were totally shocked," Kim Shaub said. "We were like, 'You can't do that, can you?' "

Turns out, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act allows a donor's family to name a needy person they want to receive a particular organ.

If doctors determine there's a match, the donation is given the green light.

Shaub's blood type is A-positive — the same as that of Landon Nuss.

So a match was declared.

But first, Shaub wanted to talk to Tina Nuss.

"I told her, 'I cannot even imagine what you are going through right now,' " he said. "'I just wanted to thank you.'

"I didn't really want to get into the gratitude because they needed time to — I mean, their son is still on a respirator at this point. This was not all about me.

"This was about Landon at this time."

Tina Nuss said she never thought twice about the donation. "Landon was the type of kid who would give you the shirt off his back," she said. "He would have wanted to do this."

A doctor from Penn called Shaub around 8 p.m. Sept. 29 and told him "this transplant is going to happen," Shaub said.

After a follow-up call at 11:30 p.m., Shaub and his family were en route to Philadelphia.

He admits having an uneasy feeling on the drive.

"Kim and I talked about this on the way down to Philly," he said. "There was just a slight bit of guilt of, how many people are a lot worse off than I am that could be getting this?

"But then, you know what? The Nusses wanted me to have it. I didn't ask for it.

"It was a gift."

TEXT MESSAGING

The surgery took about 12 hours Sept. 30.

Still dealing with her son's death, Tina Nuss kept in touch with Kim Shaub via text messaging.

"That was amazing," Kim Shaub said. "She was going through so much, but she kept texting to see how Mike was doing."

Shaub came through the surgery with flying colors, his wife said.

And her son potentially helped hundreds more, according to Tina Nuss.

Besides his liver, his heart, one lung, both kidneys and his pancreas immediately went to needy patients.

Additionally, his corneas, bones, tendons, tissue and skin were harvested, and could be used to help as many as 200 people.

"Knowing that my son is helping so many people has helped me get through this," Tina Nuss said.

Shaub, meanwhile, said he is on the road to recovery.

He had his first visit back to University of Pennsylvania Hospital on Wednesday, and everything checked out fine, he said.

The body, however, can reject a donated organ at any time, according to Gibas.

"The immune system is very complex, and we don't really know why it sometimes goes after the liver," she said.

With a liver, however, that rejection largely can be managed with medications, Gibas said.

How long Shaub can live with his new organ is an unanswerable question.

"Everybody is different," Gibas said. "But if you were transplanted today, you would live a whole lot longer, on average, than 15 years ago."

A meeting between the Shaub and Nuss families is planned within the next few weeks.

"I'm looking forward so much to meeting Mr. Shaub," Tina Nuss said. "It's going to be very emotional."

Shaub said he feels compelled to represent Landon Nuss' sacrifice, and hopes to become an advocate for both substance-abuse treatment and for organ donation.

"I am so grateful to him," Shaub said. "I hate the way it happened. A 19-year-old — your whole life in front of you.

"But evidently it was God's will."

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Online:

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Information from: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era , http://lancasteronline.com

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