Chuck Phelps' celebration of a new life-sustaining liver did not last long.
He only had it a few days when he got the news that it had to come out.
The transplanted liver he had received at Hershey Medical Center on Sept. 15 was a good fit, but might not have been as healthy as medical personnel had originally thought.
(Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec) Chuck and Mary Lois Phelps are seen in their Williamsburg area home. Chuck received a liver transplant in September, only to learn a few days after the surgery that the donor had been suffering from cancer, and Phelps would have to have the organ replaced with a healthy one. The plaque behind them reads: “Phelps, where each lives for the other and all live for God.” It is a saying that the family lives by.
The donor was suffering from cancer and the disease had traveled into the donor's lymph nodes. Chances were that Chuck could develop cancer in time if his new liver was not removed.
A man of faith, Chuck of Williamsburg looked to God for strength during a time when his weakened body had little of its own.
His wife, Mary Lois, believes the extremely rare mixup maybe was a blessing in disguise. While waiting for another liver, Chuck had a few weeks to recover and gain strength from the crisis that originally took a toll on his body when he was rushed to Hershey on Sept. 10.
To assist the Phelps family with medical expenses, a spaghetti dinner is being held from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at the Williamsburg Farm Show building.
Cost is $6 for adults and $3 for youths. Children younger than 4, eat for free.
In addition to the dinner, a silent auction is being held featuring items contributed by Penn State, the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins.
Items include autographed balls, jerseys, hats and shirts and tickets to a hockey game at Penn
"He was one of the healthiest patients to receive a liver transplant," Mary Lois said, referring to the second surgery on Oct. 2. His vitals were good and he was no longer jaundice.
Chuck said being given a liver from someone who had cancer was a rare glitch in the system. Neither he nor Mary Lois blame the transplant team or United Network for Organ Sharing for the mishap.
Mary Lois said for some reason information about a suspicious area on a CT scan did not get passed on, but a coroner noticed the cancer during an autopsy.
Chuck said perhaps other patients would have contemplated litigation, but he and Mary Lois did not consider it. Instead, they trust in God.
"The Hershey Medical team did not do anything wrong.
"The liver was the right blood type, the right size and when they harvested the organ, it looked good," Chuck said.
"They were as shocked as we were," Mary Lois said.
After consulting with other teams in Pittsburgh and Ohio, the Hershey group learned that the chances of implanting an organ possibly carrying cancer were about 1 percent. They also concurred that the risk of leaving the tainted organ in Chuck's body was too great. He was to go to the top of the transplant list again.
It would be his third transplant. Chuck had his first one in 1988, after suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that causes inflammation and obstruction of the bile ducts in the liver. It often develops because of ulcerative colitis, a disorder of the large intestine.
Chuck was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was 18 and eventually developed PSC.
Doctors kept a close watch on his diseased liver through blood tests, and in 1998, he received the organ of a young boy.
"I was 35 at the time and considered it a second chance at life," he said. "My kids were about kindergarten age, and I wanted to live to see them graduate from high school."
His prayers were answered. Daughters Lindsey and Caitlin have graduated from high school. Lindsey has completed training at South Hills Business College and Caitlin attends Penn State Altoona.
But for 15 years, the transplanted organ did not seem to do the job it was expected to perform.
"I always had a battle with that liver," Chuck said. "It did not function right."
For the past eight years, he went to Hershey monthly for tests. While there were many days when he did not feel well, he never missed a day of work at The Meadows in Huntingdon, where he serves as a clinical therapist.
"I kept plugging away even though I was pretty sick," Chuck said.
He said his job gave him a purpose and was a way to help others. Many of his clients suffered from depression, and Chuck believes God got him through those days so he could help them.
"My faith in God, courage and support by my wife and kids kept me going," he said.
The problems Chuck was having with the liver put him on the transplant list again, but it was a shot that elevated his name to the top.
One of the complications from his first transplant is that he suffers from osteoporosis or a decrease in bone mass and density.
He usually receives an infusion to combat it, but this year his provider recommended a shot, which Chuck got after work on Sept. 9. Within a short time, he developed back pain that worsened as the evening went on. He knew his was in trouble. He and Mary Lois rushed to Mount Nittany Hospital in State College. From there, Chuck was taken by ambulance to Hershey Medical Center.
"He went into shock, and his system was shutting down," Mary Lois said.
His blood pressure was something like 50/40 at one point, and his heart rate was low, she said. He was also put on dialysis because his kidneys were not functioning. His life was hanging in the balance.
Five days after Chuck was admitted to Hershey Medical Center, the second liver was ready for transplant.
"I had been on the list for seven or eight years," Chuck said. "In the back of my mind, I was prepared for the day that I would get the transplant."
He said he was very optimistic and upbeat when he got that first transplant in his 30s. At 50, he took a more realistic approach.
"If I passed, I was ready for that," he said.
The Phelps' pastor, Lee Saylor of Fairview Church of the Brethren, also was with the Phelps during those trying days in Hershey.
He described Chuck as the type of person who was always available when something needed done. He said Chuck served on the church board, including as chairman, as well as youth adviser and a Sunday schoolteacher.
"He's a very unique man," Saylor said, noting that Chuck persevered to help others despite his health issues.
Those issues became very serious after his body's reaction to that shot. Saylor said many times during those first few days, he thought Chuck might die.
During that time, members at Fairview Church suggested a prayer meeting.
Saylor, who was still in Hershey, emailed details to church members who would conduct the service. Saylor said they Skyped the service, and people layed hands on Chuck's image on the computer screen. The laying on of hands is a rite of blessing and healing, Saylor said.
Two days later, the first liver arrived.
When Chuck made it through the surgery, he said, his family and friends were jubilant.
"Most of my family was in my room partying," he said. "Then a few days later, we were in the deepest valley. We didn't know what was going to happen next."
What happened next was another life-threatening experience and a second unplanned major surgery.
When Chuck was able to eat, he became jaundice and felt itchy internally. Bile was getting into his blood stream because the transplanted organ did not adhere to the intestines. A second surgery was needed to reattach it.
He would received his nutrition through a feeding tube for a month.
Known for his positive attitude, Chuck recalls getting angry once through the whole ordeal of waiting for a healthy liver.
"I thought, 'This is not only affecting me, it is affecting Mary Lois,'" who was by his side during the 32-day hospital stay, he said. "We don't deserve this. We have done everything asked of us."
"It is like the rug is pulled out from under you," Chuck said.
Saylor, too, admitted the frustration but believes it was a time to pause.
"Whenever you are angry or tense, it doesn't go away. It just shows up someplace else," he said.
Saylor said they all needed to get the frustration out of their system. He said while people believe things happen for a reason, God does not want bad things to happen.
"God cried with us," he said, adding that he believes God assured them that he would get them through the situation.
"After receiving liver No. 4 [his own and three transplants], Chuck looked great," Saylor said.
Mary Lois said the scar tissue had been removed during the earlier transplant surgery and made it easier for doctors to insert the healthy one.
Today, Chuck continues his recovery at home with weekly trips to Hershey to make sure his healing is progressing as it should.
Reflecting on his ordeal, he believes it is the power of prayer that sustained him. A Scripture verse that has become meaningful to him is James 5:15 - "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up ..."
Mary Lois and Chuck said not only the people in their church, but believers as far away as California and Florida and along the East Coast were praying for him.
"Even during our deepest, darkest night, we could feel support out there," Mary Lois said.