Jefferson University Hospitals

Rick Praises Jefferson for Life-Saving Liver Transplant

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"I knew right away that I was in good hands"

As a New Jersey attorney specializing in malpractice cases, Rick Bolger has spent most of his career defending doctors. But a life-saving liver transplant has given him a reason to thank them, too. He enthusiastically praises Jefferson's Transplant team — led by Surgical Director Dr. Cataldo Doria and Medical Director Dr. Victor Navarro, as well as anesthesiologist Dr. Yoogoo Kang.

Rick's journey to transplantation started in 1997, when routine blood work indicated abnormal liver enzymes. Rick says he was treated locally for a number of years. And although he was able to live and work normally — even taking frequent five-mile runs — the enzyme levels just kept increasing.

"The word 'transplant' snuck into the conversation," he says. His Toms River-based gastroenterologist had trained at Jefferson and referred him to Jefferson's Liver Transplant Program. Rick first saw Dr. Navarro in March 2005.

"Dr. Navarro was the first one I met, and I knew right away that I was in good hands," Rick says.

After he was listed for a liver transplant, Rick continued to live and work as normally as possible through the summer and into the fall. But then he says the lab work began a rapid decline. He became jaundiced, his stomach grew bloated and he began to experience cognitive difficulties — starting with numbers.

"I couldn't dial a phone number," he says. "It was everything they said it would be."

By November, he was in and out of the hospital in search of relief. Eventually, he stayed until there was an organ available.

"It was a do-or-die situation — no pun intended," Rick says.

Meanwhile, Rick credits his wife Mary Lou for helping him prepare for a transplant.

"When you are fading with liver disease, you lose your cognitive abilities, and everything just drags you down. But my wife had me walking the hospital halls for exercise. She kept me the best surgical candidate that I could be."

On January 1, 2006, at the age of 54, Rick underwent the transplant surgery and then began the process of recovery. His surgery was particularly complex and difficult; at times, it was unclear if he would survive the transplant. As a result of loss of blood to the brain during surgery, he suffered minor damage — including vision loss, which is not a typical complication of liver transplantation.

Rather than seeing his vision loss as a negative, Rick views it as a positive reminder to be grateful and to make the most of his life.

It's a continual reminder of how lucky I am. I sincerely mean that."

These days, he still practices law, but he no longer tries cases in a courtroom. With that pressure behind him, he says he made a conscious decision to pursue other interests that he had long put off.

He got involved in local politics and was elected as a councilman in his town of Brielle, New Jersey. He later campaigned for the New Jersey State Assembly but was defeated.

"It was a tremendous experience, even in the loss," Rick says. "I met a lot of people and was able to spread the word about organ donation a bit."

Indeed, both Rick and Mary Lou are actively involved in raising money and awareness about organ donation. They both participated in the Transplant Games in Pittsburgh and plan to compete in the upcoming games at the University of Wisconsin.

Asked to offer advice to others who need a liver transplantation, Rick urges such individuals to "have faith — whatever your faith is" and to count on the Jefferson team.

"Face the facts head on: without a donor, you don't make it," he says. “With liver disease, there's no dialysis, no artificial heart. You just have to have faith that an organ will be available when you need it." (Since Rick's experience, Jefferson has begun using an artificial liver assist device, which can serve as a bridge to transplantation — stabilizing a patient until an organ becomes available.)

And, he concludes, "you're justified in having every confidence in the Transplant team at Jefferson. The doctors are outstanding."

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