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Liver donor runs Grandma’s Marathon after life-saving transplant

Luke Weyrauch donated part of his liver to save the life of his best friend’s brother. Now, two years later, he’s back to full health and just completed the 2016 Grandma’s Marathon.
In 2014, Luke Weyrauch (right) donated a portion of his liver to his best friend's younger brother, Josh Johnson (left). Two years later, 25-year-old Weyrauch completed Grandma's Marathon in Duluth. “Everything’s totally back to normal. I’m at 100 percent and am able to do everything I was able to do before the surgery,” Weyrauch said.

Luke Weyrauch has always been active.

Biking, running or lifting weights, it doesn’t make a difference for 25-year-old Weyrauch. He simply loves exercise—so much so that he’s currently pursuing a PhD in exercise science.

For that reason, he was understandably nervous in 2014 when considering whether to donate a portion of his own liver to his best friend’s younger brother. Weyrauch felt compelled to help, but he was worried about how liver donation could affect his own health and activity.

Now, two years after going through with the decision to give a part of his liver to save 17-year-old Josh Johnson’s life, Weyrauch is not only maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle again, but recently ran and completed his first marathon, the 2016 Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth.

“Everything’s totally back to normal. I’m at 100 percent and am able to do everything I was able to do before the surgery,” Weyrauch said. “You wouldn’t know I donated part of my liver if not for the scar.”

Nearly three years ago, the then-14-year-old Johnson was diagnosed with a condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a hereditary disorder that can cause lung disease and liver disease. Johnson couldn’t play sports anymore and slept nearly 15 hours a day.

“I wasn’t as sick as some other kids, but I was in a lot of pain. The transplant needed to happen,” Johnson said. “I could have survived for another year or so.”

After learning that several other potential donors were no longer under consideration, Weyrauch stepped forward and volunteered to see if he could be a match. Following a five-month screening process in which physicians determined whether he and Johnson were compatible and that he was healthy enough to donate, the two underwent the procedure in May 2014.

The donor, Weyrauch went first; his surgery began a few hours before Johnson’s. Because Johnson was under 18 years of age, his portion of the operation took place at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, while Weyrauch traveled to University of Minnesota Medical Center. The transplant team, which included Transplant Surgeons Srinath Chinnakotla, MD, and Timothy Pruett, MD, removed a portion of Weyrauch’s liver, and transplanted it into Johnson, where it would eventually grow to fit its new home.

Both procedures went as planned—Weyrauch was under for nearly eight hours while Johnson’s procedure took nearly 14 hours—and both patients spoke very highly of their care.

Weyrauch stayed in the hospital for nine days before going home, while Johnson’s hospital recovery lasted several weeks. Eventually, both were running and biking again, doing everything they enjoyed before the surgery.

“I play basketball at the park every day, I go fishing; I just love hanging out with my friends,” said Johnson, who is entering his senior year of high school. “It’s like nothing ever happened.”

Learn more about living donor liver donation and how you can take part.

Weyrauch planned to run a marathon a year after donating, but sustained an injury unrelated to his transplant surgery while training in 2015. He started anew in December and in June, and completed his first marathon in 4 hours and 45 minutes, an accomplishment made only more impressive by the fact that he had major surgery just two years before.

“I felt great during training, felt great during the marathon,” he said. “It was a little tough at first, but after the first few months of getting into running, it was totally fine.”

Weyrauch and Johnson are still close. They hang out and play video games, watch movies. Their only reminders of the procedure are two scars, Johnson’s anti-rejection medications and a shared liver.

Before he decided to become a donor, Weyrauch worried it would change his life. Now he knows the transplant has made a difference, but not in the way Weyrauch feared.

“I gave up one summer of my life, and in exchange Josh got a whole new lease on life. Now he can do everything that a 17-year-old kid should be doing,” Weyrauch said.