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Thursday, Dec. 30, 2004 03:37 am

In the pink

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Dave Piper: "I'm a new person."
Photo by Todd Spivak

Dave Piper kept a knapsack packed with pajamas, toiletries, and a rosary by his bedside. He lived each day on edge, anxious, ready to flee at a moment's notice. When the phone rang, his hopes would inevitably soar, then plummet -- until Piper finally received the call that would save his life.

A recovering alcoholic with liver cirrhosis, Piper spent nearly two-and-a-half years awaiting a liver transplant. On Dec. 6, the 49-year-old Springfield resident underwent transplant surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. He was selected from a list of 130 candidates.

"The doctors told us they put the new liver in and it 'pinked right up,' " says Piper, 49. "We had no idea what that meant, but we knew it was good news."

He and his wife, Lori, were right. The new liver was showing immediate signs of healthy blood circulation, and 10 days later, he returned to their home, east of White Oaks Mall, just in time for Christmas.

A Pittsfield native, Piper first moved to Springfield to attend commercial-art classes at Lincoln Land Community College. He spent years in the capital city working in a clothing store, during which time he sat on several civic boards dedicated to health issues and downtown planning and development efforts. He is a member of Mayor Tim Davlin's task force on homelessness. A former athlete, Piper is a skillful golfer.

The busy schedule came to a sudden halt about 15 years ago, when Piper's health took a drastic turn. Piper contracted postinfectious encephalitis -- a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain -- from the bite of a rare mosquito and spent four days of a month-long hospital stay in a coma.

Forced to quit working, Piper suffered from memory loss and plunged further into alcoholism. His liver became so badly damaged from the heavy drinking that a doctor later told him he had just five years to live.

Sober for several years now, Piper says the liver transplant has dramatically increased his physical energy and alertness.

"I'm a new person," he says. "I feel like my brain had been put on a shelf for 10 years."

Piper's lifesaving surgery came just weeks before the 50th anniversary of the first successful organ transplant -- a kidney transplant performed in Boston on Dec. 23, 1954. The first liver transplant came about a decade later.

Organ transplants once stoked controversy similar to today's debates over stem-cell research and human cloning but have since become commonplace. Today the demand for new organs far outstrips the supply.

Some 25,000 Americans undergo the surgery each year, and more than 87,000 Americans await organ transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. In Illinois, 243 liver transplants were performed this year. There remains a waiting list of 1,040.

Liver transplants are among the safest of organ transplants. The survival rate for liver recipients is about 87 percent one year after the operation and 70 percent three years after the surgery, says Kathy Holleman, a spokeswoman for Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

"A new liver really does give you a new lease on life," she says.

At the start of a months-long recovery, Piper takes medication to ensure that his body does not suddenly reject the new liver. He hopes to continue his involvement in civic issues and even find a job in the health-care industry.

"I gave up drinking because of my respect for life," says Piper.

"Now I am going to be able to go back to work and regain my self-esteem."

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