Life and Death: Finding a Donor

A Massachusetts man looks to his friends and family to save his life.


Sept. 17, 2007 -- We first met Stephen Dziemian earlier this year. His wife, Corey, was with him as he visited a series of doctors. And it was clear he was very sick.

Back in February, Dr. James Pomposelli told Dziemian that his chances of dying from liver disease within three months were a little more than 10 percent.

On that first day we saw him, Dziemian's liver had been failing slowly for years, and his skin was turning yellow. He had a disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis.

Click here to see some of Stephen Dziemian's or Carlo Morrisey's responses to your questions and comments.

Dziemian was finally at the point where he was going to need a new liver, and in some ways, he wasn't ready to hear it. "I don't feel good, but I don't feel that bad, though," he told ABC News. "I don't feel like I'm really at that point yet where I'm worried I'm going to die, or anything. I certainly don't feel like that."

At this point, Dziemian was 36, a dad with a 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. He was employed in the printing center of Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass. He held a second job as a salesman at Pure Hockey, a hockey supply chain, because hockey was his life, and he played all the time, even though he'd been sick since 1992.

The prospect of going through a liver transplant seemed like something he could put off forever.

But doctors told Dziemian it was literally do or die time.

The hard facts were that Dziemian needed a new liver fast, but the waiting list was months long — possibly too long — to get one from the organ bank that is supplied with organs from the deceased.

But there was another option to save his life. The doctors told him to look to his family, and to his friends. In a sense, the people in the picture frames on his own mantelpiece — one of them could be a possible donor — a living donor.

But in requesting a liver donation, Dziemian was asking his family and friends to take a big risk, because the healthy donor in these cases routinely gets sick — sometimes, sicker than the person who needs the liver.

Doctors explained to Dziemian that he needed to ask people close to him. "The way it was explained to me was, 'We really would be more comfortable if you were to ask family members, or ask friends, close friends,' he said. "I think the way they said it was 'friends you have an emotional relationship with.'"

And in that category, of course, was Dziemian's wife.

But the doctors didn't want that, because the Dziemians had a young daughter.

"When we approached the doctors about it, they really kind of said, 'No. If your daughter was a lot older, maybe we'd consider it, but with a 3-year-old daughter, it's really not an option, because if something happens, she'd be left without both parents," Corey said.

Corey, typically the tough one, was scared. "The thought of losing him is just, you know, too much."

The next news was bad news for Dziemian, because the first people he had turned to were his brothers. His older brother, Neil, had already proved to have the wrong blood type. That left his younger brother, David, a 30-year-old photographer.

When it came time to ask his brother for help, Dziemian found it difficult to be direct. "I basically handed them a pamphlet and said, 'This is something the hospital would like me to consider doing.' To this day, I haven't asked somebody to do it. I don't know, it just feels funny to ask somebody to make that kind of commitment, or life-altering, possibly life-altering change in their life."

But David got the point.

"I could see it in his eyes, how he asked me, that it was probably one of the hardest things he's ever had to do," David said.

And so David stepped forward and went for the medical checks to make sure he was a good match in all ways — not just blood type — but the more the doctors told him, the more he worried about what he'd signed on for.

Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., told David that "the estimated chance of dying or having a catastrophe that's quoted in this circumstance is somewhere about a half a percent range. But as I say to people, 'You don't half a percent die. You're either alive or dead at the end of the day, and the whole purpose of the evaluation is to be able to assess your risk.'"

In the end, David did not have to make the difficult decision of putting his life at risk. Tests revealed that his blood did not clot well enough to make him a candidate. And David was partly relieved to hear that.

"[I] just kind of have some mixed emotions about that — a little bit sad, but a little bit relieved at the same time," he said.

Stephen had much the same reaction. "In some ways, when I found out about my brother, a little part of me was happy, because now he doesn't have to go through this."

It was a generous response, but Dziemian was still in very serious trouble.

But in one 24-hour period, Dziemian received three phone calls that gave him new hope. Three different men — not members of his family — had heard about his situation, and stepped forward to volunteer to be his liver donors. All three went to the Lahey Clinic to fill out paperwork and get a preliminary examination. They also — one-on-one — were briefed about the risks.

Then, in an awkward moment, they were asked as a group to make a huge decision.

The first candidate — Dziemian's stepsister's fiancé — had the same blood clotting problem as David.

The second candidate — a former roommate of Dziemian's — decided not to go through with it, because his wife was just one month away from giving birth.

That left only one last possibility — a man named Carlo Morrisey, who hardly knew Dziemian (he's the uncle of a good friend of Dziemian).

And so, in this 17th week, Morrisey — a high school psychologist, who, at 56, was, at first, told he was too old to volunteer — is now the candidate.

But, Pomfret had her doubts. "I told Carlo that he wouldn't be my first choice, because of his BMI [body mass index]. We've got a very good likelihood that we'd have some fatty infiltration in his liver."

But, with no one else stepping forward now, Morrisey proved to be a good enough candidate.

So, on an early Wednesday morning, this man who barely knew Dziemian, went to Lahey Clinic to save his life, which meant going under the knife. They were going to need 60 percent of his liver.

Why would this man make a sacrifice like that?

In the preceding days, we had several conversations with Morrisey about it. We saw him the afternoon before surgery, spending time with his wife and brother, and one of the things he kept coming back to was his faith.

"I've been praying there would be a miracle and Steve recovers," he said. "There's risks involved for me. There is going to be a long recovery. There's going to be pain. Those are things I'd rather avoid. ... You know, two months from now, I should be OK, and he should be OK, and that's great."

Less than an hour after Dziemian's surgery began, Pomposelli emerged to tell Corey that the procedure had been effective.

Five weeks later, we looked in on Morrisey again. The doctors told him on a follow-up visit that the 40 percent remnant of his liver was growing back, and out in the world, was a man carrying a living piece of him.

Morrisey hates being called a hero. "I don't want to get at society — we're in trouble. Like, people say, 'If it was my son, or my daughter, I'd do it.' I don't know how people would make a call like that. 'Oh, it's somebody else? Let them go.' It's just crazy in my mind."

That same afternoon we checked in with Dziemian in — of all places — a shopping mall. His color was returning, and most important — he was going to live.

Dziemian — 23 weeks after the process of finding a new liver began — was conflicted over the effect it had had on Morrisey. "It is tough, because he was perfectly healthy. I hate to see anything go wrong with him, but even when he talks to me, and I've got a few little bumps since the hospital, I know he's really worried about how I'm doing."

Twenty-three weeks. That's what it took to save man's life. That, and a guy who doesn't think it had anything to do with being a hero.

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