It would be easy for Drew Busch to feel a little self-pity.
Drew was diagnosed with biliary atresia, or inflammation of the liver’s bile ducts, when he was an infant. The condition led to liver failure, and Drew underwent a liver transplant at 1 year of age.
But Drew, who is now a college freshman, hasn’t let health challenges stand in his way. Instead, in the 18 years since his transplant, Drew has built a remarkable life.
This June, he took seventh place in the 800-meter run at the Minnesota State Class A Track and Field meet with a time of 1:57.23. He was also one of only 62 people accepted into Marquette University’s doctor physical therapy program—out of a pool of 1,400 applicants. Finally, Drew volunteers with the American Liver Foundation, sharing his story with other potential liver transplant recipients and their families.
“I’ve spent a lot of my time in recovery. The whole transplant experience has taught me that if you buy into self-pity, it’s not easy to get over things,” Drew said.
Still, living donor transplant recipients in the late 90s often experienced liver-related complications following the transplant, including bile duct strictures, which plagued Drew throughout grade school.
The constrictions promoted bacterial growth in Drew’s bile ducts, the narrow channels that convey bile from the liver to the intestinal tract. This, in turn, led to frequent cholangitis—an infection of the ducts. Drew’s care team conducted biopsies, performed procedures to dilate Drew’s bile ducts and even inserted biliary drainage tubes into Drew’s abdomen, but nothing seemed to reduce the pain.
“Pretty much everything a liver transplant recipient can go through, Drew went through,” Knaak said.
In fifth grade, Drew underwent another major surgery to correct the ongoing problems.
“That was a turning point,” Drew said. “It took away those flare-ups of pain and many of my other liver issues.”
“I haven’t really been limited by my transplant, and that’s such a blessing, because that’s not the case for everyone,” Drew said.
Still, Drew—like many transplant recipients—will take immuno-suppressants for the rest of his life to ensure his body doesn’t reject the organ. He also takes a bile-thinning drug and receives a blood test every other month.
“You’d like to think post-transplant life is going to be easy, but it’s just different work than what they experienced pre-transplant,” said Knaak, who works with many pediatric patients and families post-transplant. Transplant patients must maintain constant vigilance, even when they’re feeling healthy, because unexpected complications may occur at any time. And even if they follow their care routine without fail, that doesn’t guarantee they will have smooth sailing, Knaak said.
But Knaak also encourages patients and families to enroll in most normal activities and lead full lives.
“In order to do well, they have to realize this isn’t something that will make them different,” Knaak said.
It’s a lesson that Drew seems to have mastered since his transplant operation. Thanks to his own determination and the steadfast support of his family, Drew’s life so far has been marked by accomplishments.
“At the end of the day, really no one else can do as much to make you feel better as you can,” Drew said. “If you allow yourself to get down or wallow in the sadness, you’re going to stay that way.”