Greg Gilliland, 57, of Hot Springs is a muscular and imposing 6 feet 4 inches, his healthy skin a perfect complement to sky blue eyes.
Sixteen months ago, he was on his hands and knees on the floor of the men’s room at the Garland County DHHS office, weighed down by a swollen belly, trying to mop up blood with a paper towel. It was blood he’d vomited, blood from a burst vessel in a liver that was giving up its job in his fluid-filled body. With no liver function, poisons were running rampant in his body; he didn’t have a clue what was happening. He insisted on driving himself home. A co-worker followed him to make sure he made the 14-mile journey safely, and then Gilliland’s wife took control and got him to a hospital in Hot Springs.
Gilliland was rushed into surgery, and at one point the doctors emerged to tell his wife that they were losing him. A surgeon arrived who could repair the vessel, but Gilliland was by no means out of the woods. He was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
The disease had been making itself known for a year, if only he’d recognized the signals. How could he? A big man, his frame concealed his muscle loss, his tan concealed his jaundice, ammonia levels in his blood decked his judgment.
From November 2004 to May 2005, Gilliland knew he was traveling a road whose certain destination was death. His wife and daughter began frantically to get him on the waiting list for a liver transplant.
Then began the rounds of physical tests to prove he was healthy enough for a new liver, the results provided by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences to Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, where he’d registered for a liver transplant.
The doctors at Memphis told him the average wait was six months to a year — probably more time than he had, especially given that his stature would require the organ of a big man.
Finally, on May 1, UAMS was able to put Gilliland on its own liver transplant list. Dr. Youmin Wu, the state’s first liver transplant surgeon, had assembled and trained his team and gotten the green light from UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) and insurance providers.
By then, Gilliland said in a recent interview, “I was a dead man walking.” His children — all grown and living out of town, one as far as Hawaii — had come to Hot Springs to be with him one last time.
At 9:20 p.m. on Friday, May 13 — a lucky Friday the 13th, it turns out — Gilliland and a weeping daughter were sitting together when he got a phone call. It was Sue Belcher from UAMS. “Are you ready for a new liver?”
His wife got him to UAMS by 6 a.m. the next morning and the whole family stayed by him as he was prepped for surgery. “I was pretty nervous,” Gilliland said. “I would have been scared to death if I hadn’t known I was going to die in a few days.”
The surgical team, about to make Arkansas history, was probably a little nervous too. One doctor joked, “We’re not going to drop the ball with you,” Gilliland said. He added, “I got the royal treatment.”
The surgery took less than four hours. Gilliland woke up later that day just long enough to learn the operation had been a success. The day after the surgery, he awoke to an ecstatic wife and family. His wife said she was reminded of the days her children were born. Gilliland was feeling no pain himself, either, he laughed.
Wu told the family that the liver was in such poor condition that Gilliland would have died in a couple of weeks. When he hooked up the new liver, “it began changing immediately to a healthy color right on the front end,” Gilliland said.
Gilliland said he felt better from the start. His liver was clearing out the toxins and his head was clearing. Since then, his lab tests have been better and better — so good that at some point in the future, his doctors may see if he can drop the immunosuppressant meds he must take now to keep from rejecting the foreign organ.
There was one snag post-op. Dr. Wu told Gilliland he could exercise 30 minutes a day. Gilliland translated that into meaning he could take a 30-minute walk — and so he did. Fifteen minutes away from his home, he realized he was in trouble, but he lives in a rural area with no homes to call from for help. He “toughed it” home, and later collapsed on his way from bed to bathroom. His blood pressure had plunged. Back he went to UAMS’ ER. His doctors clarified: By 30 minutes a day, they meant a total of all activity — getting up off the couch, going from room to room — a day.
Gilliland laughed. “Dr. Wu probably thought I was an idiot.”
Now, Gilliland lifts weights and jogs. He returned to work at the Department of Health and Human Services, where he is a licensing specialist for foster care and adoption agencies, Dec. 1.
At a conference called by the Arkansas Organ Recovery Association (ARORA), Gilliland was a guest speaker. As he closed, he began to express his gratitude that God had let him live, by making an organ that he could use available. He said he was grateful for all the prayers that had been sent up by his family for him. But then he stopped mid-sentence. He saw in the audience the mother of the 20-year-old man who had died and whose liver he’d been given. A nurse, she’d told Gilliland only recently that she always prayed for the patients who came to her hospital. “She’d been a praying mother, too,” he said. His gain had been her loss. It taught him a lesson, he said, about the heroism of families who, confronted with a tragic accident, had let the organs of their loved ones be taken so that others could avoid their certain grave.
Gilliland is now one of 21 Arkansans who in the past year have benefited from such families’ courage.