Debbie Nemeth’s husband, Michael, was going to die without a liver transplant. She was a compatible donor.
Winter Garden resident Debbie Nemeth places her hand on husband Michael’s arm as she remembers the uncertainty of the day of surgery.
The Nemeths will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary this April, but there was a time when neither of them was certain they would live to see that day.
On March 1, 2013, Debbie became a living liver donor for Michael, whose liver was failing and was certain to die without a transplant. Before the surgery began, she didn’t know if she would wake up. Doctors weren’t sure if Michael would wake up either.
It was the ultimate act of love: Laying down her life in hopes that her husband would live.
“It’s not really something you can ask people to do,” Debbie said. “It’s an enormous surgery that could kill you even though you’re otherwise healthy. It’s an enormous sacrifice of time, sacrifice of well-being, sacrifice of money.”
LOVE FROM THE START
Discovering her boyfriend had Hepatitis C didn’t stop Debbie Pettitt from marrying him on April 8, 2006.
Around 2011, Michael Nemeth entered a drug trial to try to eliminate the Hepatitis C, a disease that affects the liver. The drug had an adverse effect on Michael, causing the Hepatitis C to attack his liver faster. His liver began to fail.
The Nemeths went to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, where they lived at the time. Michael was told he needed a liver transplant.
“When I had gone through the testing to be his donor, I had to get to the mindset of, ‘I’m OK if he dies. I’m OK if I die. I’m OK if we both die’ — which would leave our 5-year-old daughter without parents. Which is an enormous depth of faith that it took to do this." — Debbie Nemeth
But he was going to die before he could get a liver from a deceased donor. He was given to four to six months to live if he didn’t receive a transplant.
The clinic told him he was eligible for a living liver donor. The liver is an organ that regenerates, so the Mayo Clinic would take two-thirds of someone else’s liver and take his liver out and put those two-thirds in.
Although Debbie wanted to be tested for eligibility from the beginning, doctors told Debbie that as Michael’s spouse, she was the last resort. She needed to be her husband’s caregiver, and she needed to be healthy for their daughter, Olivia, who was 5 at the time.
They reached out to family and friends, asking if someone would be willing. Those who were willing called the clinic and were tested. The donor needs to have a compatible blood type, be healthy and be between the ages of 18 and 55. Many of the people who volunteered were too old.
The clinic realized there was no other alternative and tested Debbie. They also tested Michael to make sure it was even possible for him to survive a surgery, since he was in such a fragile state.
The surgery was scheduled for March 1, 2013. Neither of the Nemeths knew if they would survive.
“(There was) a lot of love,” Michael said.
“When I had gone through the testing to be his donor, I had to get to the mindset of, ‘I’m OK if he dies,’” Debbie said. “‘I’m OK if I die. I’m OK if we both die’ — which would leave our 5-year-old daughter without parents. Which is an enormous depth of faith that it took to do this. A big part of my head was telling me, ‘Don’t be stupid, Debbie, you’re the healthy one. Your daughter needs at least one parent. Stay healthy for her.’ But then the other part of me was saying, ‘How can you watch your daughter grow up and look into her eyes and tell her you didn’t do everything you could to try to save her dad?’ It came down to our faith in God.”
The Nemeths both woke from the surgery and decided they wanted to savor every moment of life. They took a celebratory trip to Disneyland. That trip led them to follow a dream to live close to Disney World, so they relocated to Winter Garden at the end of 2013.
The experience of risking her life to give her liver has grown Debbie’s faith.
“I think that’s just the biggest gift that I have received from this,’’ Debbie said.
“Wait. No, no,” Michael interjected. “I received the biggest gift.”
Contact Jennifer Nesslar at [email protected]