Jefferson University Hospitals

Erica Deeply Respects Liver Transplant Surgeon Dr. Doria

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Liver Transplant - Erica

"In order to keep moving forward, you have to be positive"

Born three-and-a-half months early, Erica Stein spent the first weeks of her life in Jefferson's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Nineteen years later — in June 2007 — Erica returned to Jefferson for an emergency liver transplant. While many transplant patients spend years knowing they need a new organ and preparing for transplant surgery, Erica's experience was a whirlwind.

She recalls the excruciating abdominal pain that struck while she was home on summer break from the University of Connecticut. It was just a day before her parents were leaving for a special anniversary trip to China. The following morning, Erica went to her pediatrician, who diagnosed her with a routine infection and sent her home with a prescription. With that news, the Steins decided to move forward with their travel plans.

But the situation quickly took a turn for the worse. The pain continued, and the next two mornings, Erica fainted. She returned to the pediatrician, thinking she was experiencing a side effect of the medication. At that point, Erica says, the doctors thought she might have hepatitis A or mono.

The pediatrician kept pushing Erica to go to the hospital, but with her parents away, she hesitated. Finally, a family friend — who happens to be a gastroenterologist — told Erica it wasn't hepatitis A or mono; it was liver failure. Soon, her liver disease was causing toxins to build up in her brain.

"I wasn't lucid," she says.

The family friend contacted Jefferson hepatologist Victor Navarro, who arranged for a chopper to transport Erica to Jefferson. He also reached Erica's parents in China and urged them to return home immediately.

For her parents, getting back to their daughter was far from easy.

"They were in a boat on a river. To get back, they had to climb 250 flights of stairs in 90 percent humidity. They had a car arranged to pick them up, but then a monsoon hit. And when they finally made it to the small regional airport, all the flights were cancelled," Erica recalls.

Eventually, she says, another family friend's travel agent got them a flight from Hong Kong to California. "But when they were in line for Customs, the computer system went down!"

Her parents arrived just after Erica was taken into surgery at Jefferson. By then, it was clear that she had a rare genetic condition called Wilson's disease. Unbeknownst to them, both her mother and father carried the gene.

"Wilson's disease is when your liver can't filter copper out of your body," Erica explains. "So the copper builds up and becomes toxic. For 15 years, I was walking around in liver failure, but my body compensated for that."

Looking back, she says she missed some signs and symptoms, such as the higher-than-normal levels of exhaustion she often experienced during her first year away at school. She also thought she had been experiencing "emotional problems," which she and her mom had attributed to hormones. It turned out to be a result of the high copper levels in her body. ("A normal copper count is nine to 12," Erica notes. "Mine was over 500.")

A day after her transplant surgery, Erica returned to full and complete brain function. She later had to undergo bile duct reconstruction surgery and extensive physical therapy. And though eager to return to college in the fall, she experienced a bout of rejection and had to miss a semester.

She returned to the University of Connecticut for the spring semester and says it was difficult working through the social and emotional aspects of being a transplant patient on a bustling college campus.

"I was 19 years old when all this happened," Erica says. "I wasn't emotionally ready for it. A lot of people have time to prepare. I was in denial for awhile, but I've come to terms with it in the past year.

"I am using it for the better rather than feeling sorry for myself," she notes. "In order to keep moving forward, you have to be positive."

Erica says she strictly adheres to the requirements and conditions of being a transplant patient. She does that because she wants to stay healthy — but also because she deeply respects her transplant surgeon, former Jefferson doctor, Cataldo Doria, MD, PhD.

"I look up to him like a father, and I would never want to do anything to disappoint him," she explains.

Ultimately, Erica says, the transplant experience has changed her life.

It has forced her to grow and mature more quickly than she might have otherwise. It has given her a chance to hone her skills as a public speaker (she's given numerous talks, including one at the American Liver Foundation gala). And it has inspired her to change her major from business to health communications.

Her goal is to work for an organ procurement organization or to return to Jefferson — this time as an employee, not a patient.

For more information about receiving a liver transplant or serving as a donor, please call 215-955-8900.