From Diagnosed to Doctor - A Physician with personal experience
By Eric Eliason DO
Jul 14, 2015
Updated Jul 13, 2023
5 min read
In a way, I began my gastroenterology career many years before med school. I was in Frankfurt, Germany, serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, when I first experienced several symptoms that I now provide medical care for: I felt extremely fatigued, suffered abdominal pain in the upper right quadrant, had bright orange urine and jaundiced skin. Something was clearly abnormal. After a week in a Frankfurt hospital, physicians ruled out viral hepatitis and began suspecting Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a longterm, chronic disease that attacks bile ducts and can eventually deplete liver function. Thankfully, the disease progresses slowly, so I completed my mission with only a few bouts of nausea, abdominal pain and jaundice.
Once physicians in the United States confirmed the PCS diagnosis post-mission, I more fully comprehended the meaning of the acronym. I learned that the disease affects men more than women; and that only six out of every 100,000 people have it. For any football fans, I found out that PSC is the same autoimmune disease that Chicago Bears football great Gary Payton died from. Plus, I began to seriously consider the complications and consequences associated with the disease, like infections, liver failure, and bile duct and colon cancer. Most dramatically, I realized that a new liver was the only sure way to beat the disease … But I wasn’t ready for a liver transplant … yet.
After a few more years, I completed my bachelor’s degree, married my sweetheart and moved to Phoenix, Ariz. to attend medical school. I instinctively felt compelled to study the same anatomy being annihilated in my own body – knowing that my personal experience would someday instill a tremendous amount of empathy for future patients. By the time I reached my second year in med school, my trusted physician explained that the PSC had progressed significantly. With scarred bile ducts and an impeded liver, I wasn’t considered sick enough to qualify for a liver transplant from a deceased donor, but I was at an ideal stage for a living donor transplant. That’s when an immeasurable amount of love poured in.
To offer someone else a vital organ is an awe-inspiring gift. Several friends and family members volunteered their livers in my behalf. It turned out that both my younger sister and brother matched my blood type; and since my brother’s body size complements mine, the physicians deemed him as the best donor match.
My brother Kyle is five years younger than me, and growing up as the only boys in our family, we’ve always been best friends. By providing me with a little more than half of his liver, he became more than my best friend – he became a type of personal savior. A savior is described as an individual who does something for a person that the person can’t do for themselves. I couldn’t grow or provide myself with a new liver, and would have died without my brother’s intervening gift. Every day, I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for his sacrifice and brotherly love.
Approaching the transplant, I felt deep concern about my brother’s health. Removing the liver comes with great risks, and sadly, there have been similar cases when the healthy donor died and the recipient lived. That became my darkest nightmare. On the other hand, my brother’s main concern focused on me and my health; as he knew that transplanting the liver is one of the biggest and most involved abdominal surgeries in existence.
Nevertheless, our faith overcame our fear. The transplant took place at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz. by a fabulous team of physicians and medical staff. With their medical expertise, and with much prayer, fasting, and support from family and friends, the transplant proved successful. It took my brother about three months to fully recuperate his energy, and about that same amount of time for his liver to regenerate to normal size. Amazingly, I missed more than a month of med school and still walked with my class at graduation.
On Dec. 1, 2014, we celebrated the ten year anniversary of our transplant. Looking back, it’s obvious that the event stands as a pivotal and defining moment in my life, as well as my brother’s. I believe we are stronger brothers, friends and physicians because of this trial.
After the transplant, both my brother and I became gastroenterologists; as it seemed natural and necessary to share our knowledge and experience with others in similar circumstances. Today, we feel blessed to serve patients who we relate to on a variety of levels – emotional, mental and physical. We relate to the worrisome thoughts that come at night, we understand the family conversations that focus on health, and we foresee many questions patients ponder. We’ve felt similar fears, and also similar joys that come with medical care. I know that this empathy makes us better physicians, and I marvel at the many times our experiences provide benefit for others.
For example, I recently cared for a single young woman, less than 30 years old, who was at risk for colon cancer. Best practice protocols recommend removal of the colon in high risk situations; and if it’s low risk, patients have the choice to either remove the colon or continue with a vast number of random biopsies in six months. The thought of having her colon extracted, and therefore being permanently attached to a bag in order to remove bodily waste, left my patient sobbing tears of despair. And, oh, how I could relate to her initial shock and worries.
A few years after my transplant, I too needed a colectomy (due to ulcerative colitis, a common consequence of PSC). I empathized with this young woman’s fears, and pacified some of them. In sharing my story with her, I assured her that an active lifestyle can continue even when a person is required to wear a bag of bodily waste near the front of the abdomen. As the conversation progressed, the young woman’s tears dried, she began to breathe more deeply and her head wrapped around the concept. She realized she could still experience a relatively normal, high quality life; and she walked away from the appointment with hope.
My wise brother notes that some people receive trials in life, while other people choose them – but either way, we all face difficulties. He’s spot on. In our circumstance, he chose to become a living liver donor, while I received the lot of recipient – either way, we both faced something difficult. I’ve found the most rewarding results come by transforming trials into beneficial experiences for others. And bottom line, that’s why I dedicate my time and talents to metamorphosing the brotherly love given to me into brotherly love and the best quality healthcare for the patients I serve.