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A New Purpose

Hoag Patient Encourages Everyone to Save a Life

John Whalen thought that after three months of rehabilitation, everything would go back to normal. But it turned out that the back surgery he underwent, due to a sepsis infection, was the start of a new life in which nothing would ever be the same.

The day he and his wife Lauren drove home from his surgery, they turned onto their street and he asked, "Where are we?" From that point on, his short-term memory was off. He and his family dismissed it as side effects from the antibiotics and infection.

In June 2012, he completed rehab and planned a party to celebrate. "I remember setting up for the party on Saturday morning and then it's Wednesday afternoon and I'm back at Hoag Hospital," John says.

His neurosurgeon explained John had hepatic encephalopathy due to his liver not functioning properly. After a biopsy was performed, Donald R. Abrahm, M.D. referred him to Robert Gish, M.D. who, at the time, was a Clinical Professor of Medicine, Section Chief of Hepatology, and Director of the Center of Excellence for Hepatobiliary Disease and Abdominal Transplantation (C.H.A.T.) at the University of California at San Diego. John was diagnosed with a genetic disorder alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (also known as fatty liver disease). His liver had decompensated and would not regenerate itself.

Dr. Gish told John that he would need a liver transplant in the future, but that he wasn't sick enough to be placed on the list. "I went home and learned how hard it is to get a transplant and not everyone gets one," he remembers. "It was really scary to think my life was in jeopardy."

During the wait, Dr. Abrahm and Dr. Gish worked together so John wouldn't have to travel between Costa Mesa and San Diego.

On February 26, 2013, John received the call that they had found a liver for him. "I was so shocked that the first question I asked was, 'Are you sure you got the right person?' I didn't even know I was on the list," he says.

Following the 10-hour transplant surgery on February 27, 2013, John asked his wife to help him put on his shoes. He didn't want to waste this miraculous gift he'd been given. For the past four years, John hasn't squandered a second. He takes his medication, exercises, eats healthy foods, avoids alcohol and lives life to the fullest.

"As a recipient, I'm here today because there's a family who suffered a tragedy," he said. "My donor decided to give freely of himself to save my life."

On February 18, 2013, Jason Gosnell, 30, father of two girls, suffered a grand mal seizure. He sustained a traumatic brain injury when his head hit the bathtub. He was a registered organ donor in Arizona and his family honored his wishes. "Not only did Jason save my life but he saved other people's lives, too," John says.

The depth of John's gratitude has kept him balanced and, even more importantly, motivated to respect his donor family and be of service through OneLegacy. As a OneLegacy ambassador, John tirelessly goes out to the community and to local high schools, advocating for more individuals to register as organ and tissue donors. He recently started working with OneLegacy's Aftercare Program, which supports donor families, by sharing his experience as a recipient and showing donor families the love he has for them.

"Hoag has a tremendous number of donors and that is thanks to the hard work of Rosemary O'Meeghan, M.D. and the staff here," he says. "It's wonderful to come to Hoag where everybody sees organ and tissue donation as an experience to save someone else's life."

Hoag has the largest number of tissue donors of any non-trauma hospital in Orange County, with 164 consented donors between 2007 and 2012.

"I don't feel like the same person I was before," John says. "When I'm out in the world and I see people, I ask 'what can I do for that person?'"

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