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Living Healthy After Liver and Kidney Transplant at Duke

September 12, 2018
Kenn Wiggins

Kenn Wiggins received a liver and kidney transplant at Duke after another center found his condition too complex.

Kenn Wiggins, 40, doesn’t take his good health lightly. For years, he lived with autoimmune hepatitis that eventually led to a liver transplant. Then his disease returned, causing him to develop both liver and kidney failure. When the center that had performed his first transplant judged his condition too complex, he turned to Duke’s transplant team as his last hope. Today, after successful kidney and liver transplants, Wiggins feels great. “Duke saved my life,” he said.

A Rough Start

Wiggins was 25 in 2003 when he was diagnosed with a liver condition called autoimmune hepatitis. It occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the liver. Eventually, it can lead to liver failure. Wiggins was able to manage his condition with medication at first. But over the next five years, his health reached a critical point. “It became evident that I was going to need a new liver,” Wiggins said.

From Liver Transplant to Organ Rejection

Wiggins was approved for a liver transplant at a medical center near his Charlotte, NC, home, but his condition deteriorated to the point that he was hospitalized for nearly a week before a donated liver became available. After the transplant, kidney failure kept him in the hospital for more than a month.

“I finally went home and lived a normal life for the next few years,” Wiggins said. “Then I had my first rejection.”

The autoimmune hepatitis had returned with a vengeance and attacked his new liver. While medication gave him short-term relief, it didn’t last. In 2016, his liver failed completely. He needed another liver transplant.

Referred to Duke for Second Opinion

By that time, Wiggins’ kidneys had weakened even further. He was considered to be at too high a risk for his local hospital. They wouldn’t do another transplant. That’s when Wiggins’ hepatologist referred him to Duke for a second opinion.

“Kenn was a complicated patient, but he was well within our comfort zone for treating challenging cases,” said Carl Berg, MD, a hepatologist who runs the liver transplant program at Duke. 

In May of 2017, Wiggins was approved at Duke for both liver and kidney transplants. He received his new liver that summer. The kidney transplant followed several months later.

“It was a complicated surgery because it was his second liver transplant, and he also had significant kidney disease,” said Dr. Berg. “We were very successful getting him through it.”

An Integrated Team Approach Yields Success for Transplant Patients

Wiggins’ rocky road to good health turned smooth once he got to Duke. “I could not have asked for a better team,” Wiggins said. “Everyone there really wanted me to succeed.”

By everyone, he means the talented transplant coordinators, specialists, surgeons, and support staff who come together to help each patient achieve their health goals.

“We have the experience and knowledge to help more complex patients,” said Tracie Curtis, RN, BSN, Wiggins’ transplant coordinator. While some patients’ risks may seem too high based on their medical records, Curtis noted, “We like to meet them and take a look for ourselves.”

It’s a process that works. Duke is consistently ranked among the best liver transplant centers in the U.S., an impressive feat considering its team treats patients with extremely complex conditions. 

But statistics don’t tell the whole story. Duke also provides a high level of personal care to each individual. That is just as important to the doctors as the numbers that prove their transplant success.
“The real joy is watching patients like Kenn as they heal and get stronger, and get back to living their lives,” Dr. Berg said.

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Liver Transplant