On July 2, Terri Willis celebrated her 25th anniversary with her transplanted liver. Over the years, Willis, who lives in Douglasville, has become one of the Emory Transplant Center’s most vocal advocates on the benefits of organ donation and liver transplantation, talking to other transplant candidates and recipients, participating in many transplant events and writing about her experiences on Facebook and blog posts.
“If someone had not said yes to organ donation, I would not be here,” she says.
Willis had her liver transplant at age 13 at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, but she has been an Emory Transplant Center patient since 1999. Her liver failed 25 years ago as the result of a metabolic disorder called tyrosinemia, a genetic defect that causes the immune system to break down the amino acid tyrosine, the building block of most proteins. When tyrosine and other byproducts build up in the tissues and organs, it can lead to nosebleeds, dietary issues, problems with the central nervous system, liver and kidney failure, and hepatocarcinoma. Willis developed tumors throughout her liver, and her transplant saved her life, keeping the cancer from spreading to other organs.
Willis has been running for years to stay in shape, and has participated in five U.S. Transplant Games mostly in track and field events. She is an inspiration to other recipients — to everyone who has ever heard her story.
Willis remains optimistic, even though she is currently experiencing a few issues with her liver and kidneys due to her medications and the age of her organ graft. The road hasn’t always been easy. She had two quickly resolved episodes of rejection in the mid-1990s and one eight-month long episode this year that has been more of a setback. But she keeps her positive attitude and shows other transplant recipients what a little grit can do by continuing to walk and run. “I want other patients to see that they can be active post-transplant,” she says. She ran Douglasville’s Hydrangea Festival 5K road race on June 5 in a specially made t-shirt in celebration of her upcoming liverversary. She gave her finisher’s medal to her longtime transplant hepatologist, Dr. Samir Parekh, who is pictured above with Willis.