Column: Hepatitis C patient thankful for small things after liver transplant

The apple-crisp spirit of Christmas is in the air, but it's easy to get lost in the almighty hype of the holiday season.

At times it seems every television commercial and magazine advertisement is focused on persuading you to spend just a little more money to purchase the gift that will bring with it happiness, prosperity and peace on the home front. And the Christmas sales blitz starts earlier each year. It can be pretty depressing, all this commercialism, but Santa's big sale of sales is so pervasive that it's easy to forget what the season is really all about.

But John Villalobos hasn't forgotten the meaning of giving and receiving. Nor is he likely to as long as he lives. Christmas came months ahead of schedule this year for Villalobos, but, as you will see, just in time.

I first met Villalobos in 1997 while researching a column on the national spread of hepatitis C, a slow-growing but deadly disease that destroys the liver and afflicts millions of Americans. Villalobos, who contracted hepatitis C after a blood transfusion in 1982, was kind enough to share his story.

Scientists knew enough about the disease to be able to predict that with early detection the average person with a normal liver can live about 20 years before experiencing failure.

Villalobos' time was just about up.

He had been on the waiting list for a liver transplant for years. In early September, his Las Vegas physician, Dr. Frank Faris, gave him the bad news. After more than 18 years of fighting, his liver was showing signs of shutting down. Villalobos was sleeping 18 hours a day, had ballooned in size because of water retention and was pitifully weak. His status was moved to the emergency stage.

"I was too tired," the 45-year-old Henderson resident recalls. "I said, `Let's go and get it over with.' It was to the point where I just wanted it done, or just let it be."

Shortly after midnight on Sept. 18, Villalobos received the call he'd been praying for: An organ match had been found in Arizona, but he would have to get to the University of Arizona Medical Center in Tucson by 9 a.m.

Villalobos looked at his wife, Virginia, who had helped him through so many trials during his ordeal, and made the decision. The couple drove to the airport and found a flight to Phoenix. From there, they drove 150 miles to Tucson.

When he arrived at the hospital just before 8 a.m., he was greeted by nurses who led him to the operating room and immediately began cutting off his clothes. Dr. Paul Nakazato performed the 10-hour operation. Seven liters of water were removed from Villalobos, and in the days following the operation he lost 45 pounds.

"After the operation, I felt different," he says. "I felt basically normal."

Normal, except for the temporary memory loss, occasional seizures, and dozens of pills he had to take. But his memory, which had been affected by the sudden ceasing of his illness, steadily returned. The seizures stopped, and today he is back in Southern Nevada and taking decreasing amounts of medication.

"My family and I were not ready for the post-transplant complications," Villalobos says. "Thank God it worked out OK."

He knows the first few weeks after a transplant usually determine whether the recipient is going to make it. He is past that stage now and looks forward to completing his first six months with the healthy liver, which was harvested from a Phoenix accident victim. He hopes one day to meet the family of the person who helped save his life.

For now, he's thankful for the little things. Like being able to breathe and walk without fatigue.

Life is made of such wondrous things.

He does not seem to wonder what might have happened if he had slept through that midnight phone call on Sept. 18. Or if McCarran International Airport had been experiencing one of its usual delays. Or if the car his wife drove from Phoenix to Tucson had had mechanical difficulty.

Instead, he's just thankful to have a new life, the greatest gift of all, and to breathe in the crisp, clean spirit of Christmas.

John L. Smith's column appears Wednesdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at or call him at (702) 383-0295.


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