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Mom gets another chance

By Chandra L. Mattingly, Staff Reporter

January 14, 2005

Tehani Teepe

Tehani Teepe, 29, St. Leon, snuggles with her son Troy Teepe II, her daughter Kalani Pettyjohn, 9, and their dog Smartie

Chandra L. Mattingly/The Register

Two years ago, Tehani Teepe, St. Leon, received a miracle in the form of an unexpected liver transplant.

Diagnosed with carcinoma of the liver in August 2002, Teepe, 29, said she suspected from her research on the Internet that she had but three to six months to live.

Even with treatment, only 75 percent of folks with four or five carcinoid tumors of the liver survived two years, she said.

She had been told she had at least 10 of the cancerous tumors, she said.

"Tehani had advanced disease and would have died in months to one year" without treatment, agreed Dr. Joseph Buell, assistant professor of surgery at The University Hospital, Cincinnati, College of Medicine.

At 5, Teepe had lost her mom to melanoma skin cancer. Teepe then had been adopted by Clifford and Cecilia Wesley, Cincinnati. The couple had baby-sat her since she was 2 1/2, including through the illness of her single mother Leslie Harris.

Teepe didn't want her two young children to go through what she had: the death of their mom at a young age, she said. Her son Troy Teepe II, now 3, was just 22 months old, and her daughter Kalani Pettyjohn was almost 8.

But Tehani Teepe's options seemed slim.

"My kind of cancer, chemo doesn't work for and radiation doesn't work for," she said.

Sometimes a substance can be injected into tumors to shrink them, but the substance also kills healthy tissue, so that option was out because of the number of tumors.

Nor, at first, did a liver transplant seem possible, because patients whose cancers are believed to be spreading to other areas are ineligible, said Buell.

Then Teepe was referred to Buell. Although her liver cancer originated from lung cancer she'd suffered at 16, a two-month period of tests determined it had not spread anywhere else, he said.

"I got put on the (transplant) list but ... they said since my liver function tests came back normal, I was put on the bottom of the list," said Teepe, 8507 Ryan Lane.

Not quite cured

Evidently, the cancer had spread from her lung despite the surgery Teepe underwent at 16, she said. About half of her lung had been removed along with the tumor and she had thought she was cured, she added.

"They told me they had it all but studies aren't as advanced as they are now," she said.

Susceptibility to cancer seems to run in her family, she said. A grandmother died of lung carcinoma, a great-grandmother of skin cancer, and a great-great-grandmother of bone cancer.

Even with medical advances, most hospitals with transplant programs will not grant transplants to cancer patients, said Dr. Steven Rudich, director of transplantation at University Hospital and UC Department of Surgery associate professor.

"University Hospital is the only transplant center in the Tri-State area that will transplant livers to patients with certain tumors,: said Rudich.

Because she was so low on the list, Teepe was told to look for a living donor, she said.

Livers have the ability to regenerate, making it possible for someone to donate a portion of their own liver without a loss of function, said Buell.

Teepe's friend Melissa Riley, Cincinnati, who has the same blood type as Teepe, volunteered, but was not tested as a match: first, because of general concerns about black-market organ procurement; and second, because the miracle intervened, said Teepe.

"I threw a fit," and got donor program supervisors to agree to test Riley, said Teepe.

Christmas miracle

But before the test on Riley could be scheduled, Teepe got a phone call offering her a liver transplant Christmas Eve 2002.

"The liver had been sent for another woman waiting on the transplant list at UC, but she had an abscessed tooth infection, so I received it instead," said Teepe.

A transplant won't be performed on anyone with any kind of infection or fever, said Teepe.

But the liver for transplant already had arrived from an anonymous Detroit donor, and had to be used within a certain time period, said Buell.

When the other patient's infection was discovered, four hours already had passed since the liver was removed from the donor; the optimal maximum from donor to recipient is eight hours, he said.

"She (Teepe) was physically closest, she was the right size" and she was healthy, making her the ideal candidate for the now aging liver, he said.

The original patient did receive a liver transplant later, said Buell.

Teepe was so new to the transplant list, she hadn't yet received a pager, used to notify recipients when an organ was available, she said. Instead, she got a phone call as she was getting ready for a party.

"It was definitely my Christmas miracle, and my family's," said Teepe. Her family, including her adoptive parents and in-laws, felt her situation was hopeless up to that point, she said.

Teepe herself had been so busy planning what should be done for her children if she died, she had not had time to break down, she said.

But the support of her mother-in-law, Debbie Teepe, Cincinnati, helped a lot, she said.

Tehani Teepe received the liver during surgery that evening, was walking to the bathroom by the second day after surgery, and was discharged after seven days, she said.

Her prognosis is "excellent," said Buell, noting the transplanted liver is functioning well.

The longest-surviving liver transplant recipient is approaching his 30th post-surgery year, said Buell.

In addition to Buell, the surgical team included Rudich and Dr. Michael Hanaway, assistant professor, transplant surgery. Her liver specialist is Dr. Guy Neff, assistant professor of liver transplant at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Teepe still goes for blood tests and check-ups twice monthly, and credited University Hospital's "wonderful care" for her quick recovery.

Changed life

The experience has changed her life, said Teepe, who encourages others to sign an organ donor card and support organ transplants.

"You are dead and your spirit's already gone. You don't have to worry about the contents of your flesh," she said.

But folks should pay attention to their bodies while alive, said Teepe.

If someone has pain, she or he should be persistent in seeking why, visiting doctors until they discover the problem, she stressed. She'd thought the stomach pain she'd had for a year before her liver cancer diagnosis was due to an ulcer, but kept seeking the cause until it was found.

Folks shouldn't give up, however, if the resulting prognosis is dire, she added.

"Don't stop living. ... Live for today. Even if they tell you you only have tomorrow, live for today," she said.

For herself, she doesn't put off things as much as she used to, and tries to treat her own family politely, remembering to use "please" and "thank-you," especially with her children, she said.

"My thinking has changed a lot and I'm trying to change myself a lot, just being more kind and patient and loving with others," said Teepe.

If you would like to be included in Miracle Mode, send a brief description of the event along with your name, address and phone number to: Miracle Mode, Register Publications, P.O. Box 59, Aurora, IN 47001.

Copyright © 2005 The Dearborn County Register.

This article posted February 7, 2005.

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