Best Christmas Present Ever
New liver gives local teen gift of life
At a glance, Alexander “Alex” Walker looks like a typical teenager.
Unassuming with an easy smile, the East Forsyth junior belies any inkling of the harrowing year he’s had. Alex, who is known for his love of all things mechanical and his uncanny ability to fix virtually anything, had never had any kind of illness, according to his mother, Valerie Simpson, until he awoke in the middle of the night last March, vomiting blood. Panicked, Simpson, a mother of three, rushed her youngest child to the hospital.
“I was freaking out,” confessed the city native. “But my first thought, being a praying mama, was I put my hand out and said, ‘Lord, take care of Your baby, because I don’t know what’s going on.”
After a blood transfusion and a procedure to stop the bleeding, Alex underwent a biopsy, which yielded a result virtually no one expected.
“They came back and said, ‘He has cirrhosis of the liver,’ and I said, ‘How? This is a healthy child who barely gets a cold,’” related Simpson, who has worked at the Forsyth County Tax Collectors Office for the past two years. “They can’t figure out how a healthy child got this disease.”
Alex said he was also surprised and concerned when he learned of his condition.
“I was just there hoping the doctor could take care of it,” he said.
Characterized by a hardening of the liver, cirrhosis is a slowly progressing disease in which healthy tissue is replaced with scar tissue, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly. The disease is typically associated with alcohol abuse or infections such as hepatitis C, and Simpson says doctors are still unsure what could have caused her son’s ailment. Whatever the initial cause, by the time Alex was diagnosed, his liver was damaged beyond repair. He was kept hospitalized for 10 days and added to the national organ donor registry, and the wait began.
“I was kind of mad because I couldn’t play football,” Alex said. “It was (also) right in the middle of lacrosse season.”
Simpson and her mother, Marion Winbush, spent many hours praying and hoping that help would come soon.
“You have to have patience,” related Simpson, who has been a single mother since losing her children’s father to multiple sclerosis two years ago. “It’s a lot of patience and a lot of praying.”
Because he is young, Alex could only receive a transplant from a donor of a similar age so that the liver would fit properly into his slight frame, making the search for a viable donor even more challenging. Alex was one of nearly 50,000 Americans who find themselves on donor registries each year, according to the National Network of Organ Donors. In 2008, 29 percent of the registry was made up of African American patients, while only 16 percent of donors were African American. Since people of similar racial makeup are most likely to be matches, African Americans sometimes have a longer wait for organ transplants than their white counterparts. For Alex, the first call came in September, just six months after his initial diagnosis. His wait had been largely without incident, barring a brief hospital stay over the summer, which was initiated as a precaution following a bout with a stomach virus.
“We got a call from Duke that said, ‘We’ve got a liver for you,’” recalled Simpson, a Bennett College alumna. “When they call you, you’ve got to go – you always have to be ready.”
So Alex and his mother made the trip to Duke University Hospital in Durham, where the transplant was to be performed, only to find the donor organ wasn’t healthy enough to be considered for transplant. Alex was sent home and back to school. Around the Labor Day holiday, he began vomiting blood and had to be airlifted to Duke, where he received a liver bypass. Alex admitted he enjoyed the helicopter ride, but the severity of the situation wasn’t lost on him. The silver lining, he said, was that his worsening condition got his name moved higher on the donor registry. Alex made it home in time to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with his family, and just before Christmas, the family’s prayers were answered.
“I got the call on Dec. 18. He was in school, I was at work,” Simpson recalled. “The transplant nurse said, ‘We need y’all to pack up and come on.’”
This time, the family was cautiously optimistic.
“The anxiety will build up in you, not knowing what’s going to happen,” admitted Winbush, a retired guidance counselor. “But when she got the call this last time, I said ‘I think this is going to be the one.’”
Winbush’s intuition proved correct. On Dec. 19, 2012, Alex received a new liver and a second chance at life. Receiving the news that the transplant had been a success is a moment Simpson will never forget.
“The doctor came out and he gave me the thumbs up. He said everything went well,” she related. “I was ecstatic. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry. I wanted to shout, I wanted to call everybody.”
Alex, an aspiring auto mechanic and Air Force officer, spent Christmas in the hospital recovering from his surgery, where he was showered with gifts by family and friends. He was released just before the new year, and has spent the subsequent weeks recovering under the watchful eye of his grandmother and her husband, Robert Winbush. Alex and his grandmother pass the time shopping, cooking, talking and just enjoying each other’s company. Winbush says her youngest grandson’s miraculous journey has been a source of inspiration to many.
The family are members of St. Paul United Methodist Church, where Alex is active in Youth Ministry, the dance praise team and is a sound technician. Alex made his triumphant return to St. Paul in January, just days after his release.
“The church, I understand, they just went off – very celebratory that he had come back,” related Pastor Donald Jenkins, who was out of town that Sunday. “…It’s been quite an experience. Alex has handled this like somebody well beyond his years. It has really been a challenge, but he has handled it well and kept his spirits up. It’s just great to see him back.”
As for Alex, he says he is looking forward to getting back to a normal life, spending time with friends, and if all goes well, perhaps returning to the lacrosse field for his senior year next spring. He is still on track to graduate on time and plans to attend Universal Technical Institute in fall 2014.