Catholic Herald staff
In the Gospel of John 15:13, Jesus instructs, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”
Fr. John Anderson may not have died for Ginny Bablick, but the former pastor of St. Mary, Tomahawk, did give the parish deacon’s wife a renewed life.
Recently assigned to his home parish of Immaculate Conception, New Richmond, as well as to St. Patrick, Erin Prairie, Fr. Anderson had been pastor of the Tomahawk parish for 10 years.
“Father inherited me,” joked Deacon Dave Bablick, who has served St. Mary for 17 years.
The story begins six years ago, when Ginny was diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, a hereditary liver disease. Weakness, jaundice, fatigue, tremors, memory loss and fluid retention are symptoms of the condition, which ultimately leads to cirrhosis of the liver and death.
A liver transplant was Ginny’s only hope. The waiting list for cadaver livers numbered in the thousands, so, four years ago, the Bablicks began searching for a living organ donor.
At times, it was a heartbreaking process. Their two daughters were tested to determine whether they could be donors; one daughter’s liver was too small, and a biopsy showed the other daughter already had the disease. Another potential donor got pregnant and had to back out. None of the children in Ginny’s 10-sibling family could help.
After hearing of their struggles, Fr. Anderson volunteered to be screened as a possible donor. He underwent physical and psychological examinations and a liver biopsy; he and the deacon discussed his progress without telling Ginny. They feared another disappointment would kill her.
The priest passed every test, then took a month to discern whether to undergo what promised to be a painful and invasive procedure. He was also required to consult his employer for permission to miss up to three months of work. According to Fr. Anderson, Bishop Peter F. Christensen, bishop of the diocese at that time, said, essentially, “‘I wish you wouldn’t, but I understand and give you permission.’”
Meanwhile, the disease was taking its toll. Six months earlier, the deacon had to help Ginny walk the 30 feet from the couch to the bedroom. Her skin was yellow. She was going downhill fast.
After Mass on Nov. 21, 2014, six years to the day a throat rupture led to her diagnosis, Fr. Anderson and Deacon Bablick took Ginny aside and told her the news: Fr. Anderson would be her donor.
“She turned to jelly,” her husband said.
About 250 living liver transplant operations are performed each year, the Bablicks were told. Only a handful of U.S. hospitals are equipped to do the surgeries, including the University of Wisconsin Hospital, Madison, where their operations would take place.
Donors give as much as 75 percent of their liver to the recipient, whose diseased liver is removed. The organ regenerates in both patients.
Potential complications include blood clots, stroke and infection, as well as injury to the organs and blood vessels around the liver. They were warned one in every 200 patients dies.
The priest and the deacon’s wife prepared for their surgeries. Fr. Anderson underwent more tests – an MRI, a CAT scan, the taking of 17 vials of blood. Ginny spent more than seven hours in tests, and on Jan. 13 endured 15 hours in surgery, when all the praying and waiting finally paid off.
Fr. Anderson’s surgery took more than 12 hours; between 60 and 65 percent of his liver was removed. Several hours after his operation started, the organ was prepared for transplant, and Ginny’s surgery began. Each of the patients had a team of surgeons; Ginny took comfort in the fact that one of her doctors is a devout Catholic.
She didn’t fear death, because God told her they’d both be okay.
“It’s been quite a journey for both of us,” Ginny said.
“I wasn’t scared until the day of the surgery,” Fr. Anderson remembers. “Afterward, there were some times where I really had to dig deep in prayer.”
Even after their operations were successful, both patients had to return to the hospital for additional procedures. One of Fr. Anderson’s most difficult moments involved going for a check-up and ending up in the hospital for another two weeks.
“When the eucharistic minister brought me Communion, I wept,” he said.
“It’s still not over,” Ginny added. “I have several procedures I have to go through.”
Through it all, the Bablicks and Fr. Anderson had encouragement from and support of others. Their story was printed in the local newspaper, and people all over the community, the diocese and in other states were praying for them. Hundreds of cards and gifts arrived; they used CaringBridge to share their progress with neighbors, friends and family.
Looking to the future
Ginny’s life has been renewed in the months since the transplant.
On their first day home, she looked in the mirror and said, “Woah. I came out and I told Dave, ‘I’m not yellow anymore.’ It was amazing.”
“I’ll never forget the comment,” her husband added. “When you see your wife walking around with a new liver … you see the vibrance and everything.”
Another unforgettable moment involved their 8-year-old granddaughter. She saw Ginny walking around and said, “Grandma, I’ve never seen you do that before.”
In her whole life, she’d never seen her grandmother well, Dave explained.
“I feel great,” Ginny said. “It’s been a true blessing. I’ve been given a second chance at life, and I thank God every day for it, and for Fr. John for doing it for me.”
Donating an organ has changed Fr. Anderson as well.
“It’s mellowed me out a little bit,” he said, “which isn’t a bad thing.”
“You showed more emotion than I’ve ever seen, which was a good sign,” Ginny told him.
Bonded through their shared experience, the Bablicks and Fr. Anderson now find themselves pulled apart. Fr. Anderson’s move to New Richmond was a blessing – he’ll be closer to family, serving his hometown – but it’s also difficult.
“It’s part of the priesthood, moving, but it’s part of the struggle at times, too,” he admitted.
“It’s going to be hard to see him leave,” Ginny said, “not being able to see him or talk to him.”
“He gave us our life back,” her husband added.
As they enjoy the first summer of their renewed life together, the Bablicks urge everyone in good health to share their blessings. Ginny needed the liver transplant, but she needed 20 units of blood during the surgery and after.
“She had this wonderful donation, but she wouldn’t have made it without blood,” the deacon said. “Organs can be found, but they need blood now. People need to donate blood.”
As Ginny’s life is renewed, so does their story bring others hope and spiritual renewal.
“The word spread, and people are just amazed by what happened here,” Ginny said. “Not many people get the chance I have.”
When the Bablicks were visiting friends in Arkansas, the deacon helped a neighbor, a Baptist minister, build his garage. They got to know him quite well.
“All the sudden he had his whole parish praying,” she said.
He was so excited to see Ginny at her last visit. He came running toward her and said, “Ginny, you look fantastic.”
“It makes you feel good,” she said.
Editor’s note: To learn more about living liver donations, visit http://www.uwhealth.org/transplant/living-liver-donor-program/10585. To donate blood, go to www.americasblood.org.