Thanksgiving will have a special meaning in the Marhefka household in Jackson Township.
Just over six months after a daughter-father liver transplant surgery, the two agree that this holiday will be much different from that of a year ago.
Doctors said it would have been unlikely that Tom Marhefka, 58, would have lived to see November, much less Thanksgiving, if it had not been for Sara Link’s gift of life to her father.
Link, 25, of Vinco, is feeling few effects after donating a portion of her liver to her father during their surgeries in May at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Marhefka, a break press operator at JWF in Johnstown, was diagnosed in 1986 with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the liver’s bile ducts.
He had been successfully treating the disease with medication and yearly checkups in Pittsburgh. Things took a turn for the worse in 2010 following several bouts of infection not related to his liver disease.
Marhefka’s reaction to the antibiotic alarmed doctors.
“I turned jaundiced,” he said. “As soon as my doctor in Pittsburgh saw me, he asked if I was on the transplant list.”
It turned out that an additive in the antibiotic caused the jaundice. The sinus infection was a result of an abscessed tooth and cleared up after the tooth was removed.
In November 2012, Marhefka contracted a blood infection that showed the presence of the
E. coli bacterium and was hospitalized in Pittsburgh for two weeks – including Thanksgiving.
“The treatment included an IV antibiotic regimen that required my wife, Kathy, to administer it through a picc line (central catheter) after getting instructions from home nurses,” Marhefka said. “My wife is a payroll specialist at (L. Robert) Kimball’s in Ebensburg, but she soon mastered the technique.”
The IV was given every day for three weeks.
Marhefka underwent a liver transplant evaluation in January and was placed on a waiting list.
“If I’d have had to wait for a liver donation from a deceased donor, my waiting time could have been as long as two years,” Marhefka said. “Once I was placed on the transplant list, both my daughters volunteered to be tested.”
Marhefka’s youngest daughter, Stephanie, 20, a junior at California University of Pennsylvania, was not compatible, but Link’s blood type was a perfect match.
Link jumped at the chance to save her father, despite her dislike of hypodermic needles.
“I saw how sick my dad was getting in November and made up my mind that I would do anything to help save his life,” Link said. “I learned I could be the donor on April 10, one day after my 25th birthday.”
Link is a second-grade teacher at Holy Name Elementary School in Ebensburg and was ready to donate after the semester ended in June.
Family, friends, co-workers and members of the Marhefkas’ church, St. John Vianney Roman Catholic in Mundys Corner, rallied behind the family, offering prayers, gifts and donations to defray mounting medical and travel expenses.
“Stephanie conducted a fundraiser at college that generated $2,500,” Marhefka said.
The family witnessed an unexpected sign on March 31 when Stephanie was peeling potatoes for Easter dinner. She sliced a potato in half to reveal what looked like a cross and crucifix.
To a family of practicing Catholics, it was a symbol that they believed could mean good fortune for Tom Marhefka.
“We are not overly superstitious, but we took the potato and placed it in plastic wrap to serve as a reminder of our faith through my ordeal,” Marhefka said. “We kept it on the shelf until after our surgeries.”
An April meeting with doctors in Pittsburgh revealed that Marhefka’s condition was worsening to the point that he might not have been well enough to withstand the surgery scheduled for June 6.
“They moved it up to May 9, and everyone made arrangements to be there for the surgeries,” he said.
Link went into surgery at 6:30 a.m. and was finished at 2:30 p.m.
“They said they may use as much as two-thirds of Sara’s liver, but it was large enough that they only took half,” he said.
He entered surgery at 7:30 a.m. and didn’t get into recovery until 8 p.m.
Link remained in the hospital for five days and her father stayed seven.
Marhefka had to make repeated trips to Pittsburgh every other day, which proved quite painful. At home, he needed 24/7 care.
“My wife is an angel and took wonderful care of me,” Marhefka said.
Link said she was blessed that her mother-in-law, Diana Link, stayed with her in the hospital so her mother could remain by her father’s side.
“When I got home, my grandmother (Halene Schmadel of Upper Yoder Township) and husband, Dan, served as caregivers,” she said.
Father and daughter made remarkable recoveries. After three months, doctors told Link that her liver had regenerated itself to its orignal size. Her father’s liver had reach 90 percent of its maximum growth.
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.