Associate professor receives liver transplant after months of waiting, prayer

Dr. Jay Bernheisel, associate professor of engineering, poses for a photo Easter Sunday with his wife Mary Beth, son Joshua, 6, and daughter Clare, 4, two and a half weeks after his operation. | Photo submitted by Dr. Jay Bernheisel

By Amelia Krauss,News Editor

Many months of earnest prayers from hundreds of people in the Union community and beyond were finally answered March 30 when one of Union’s own received a liver transplant that would save his life.

Dr. Jay Bernheisel, associate professor of engineering, is on the road to recovery after a long battle with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a progressive disease that causes inflammation of the bile ducts and eventually leads to liver failure.

Doctors diagnosed Bernheisel with the disease more than a decade ago, but it was not until 2008 that symptoms, such as fatigue, itching and jaundice, began to appear.

As the disease progressed and Bernheisel’s liver began to fail, his hepatologist referred him for a liver transplant evaluation. On Feb. 22, Bernheisel was added to the transplant list.

A patient’s Model for End-Stage Liver Disease score, which determines one’s mortality rate within three months and ranges in severity from six to above 40, determines his or her priority on the list. When Bernheisel’s name went on the list in February, his score was 22.

By the time he received a phone call from Vanderbilt University Medical Center early March 30 informing him that he would be an organ recipient, his score had jumped to 26. At noon that day, Bernheisel underwent surgery that gave him a new liver.

During the days leading up to his surgery, Bernheisel said he was intentional about making preparations. To prepare for surgery and recovery from a possible transplant, Bernheisel said he ate healthy foods, exercised as he was able and practiced yoga to maintain flexibility.

Bernheisel also prepared for the worst.

“I also wanted to be ready to die,” Bernheisel said. “I am married with two children, now 6 and 4. My wife and I were intentional about spending time with family and friends and creating memorable experiences. … We have been very upfront with our children about my disease and the possibility of death. They came to the hospital with me, and we all had a good talk before my surgery.”

Bernheisel said contemplating the possibility of death requires a “very brutal kind of honesty.”

“My feelings about my likely demise ran the gamut of peace, disappointment, anger, comfort and joy,” he said.

While Bernheisel experienced some negative emotions, many of his colleagues, students and friends saw nothing but strength and courage in him.

Tom Drury, senior engineering major and Bernheisel’s student, said his professor’s character and strength were evident during the experience.

“He would tell all of us after he was put on the transplant list, ‘If I get a liver that means someone else has died. Pray for them and pray for that family if this liver transplant happens,’” Drury said. “He showed his faith in God in the way he trusted God to either provide a liver, miraculously heal him or call him home. … He was at peace — or so it always seemed — and truly trusting the Lord.”

Dr. C. Ben Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy and Bernheisel’s friend, said Bernheisel’s response to his condition was inspiring.

“Every person who faces a life-threatening illness asks, ‘Why me?’” Mitchell said. “What I have found remarkable about Jay is that … he asked, ‘Why should I get a liver, when there are others out there with equal or greater needs?’ And I know there was a period of time (when) he wrestled with whether or not he would allow his name to be put on the transplant list. That kind of honesty and moral courage has been an inspiration to those of us who know him.”

Bernheisel’s struggle with the ethical considerations of organ transplantation, his own personal questions and his ultimate decision to receive an organ have inspired him to live in a way that reflects his gratitude.

“In accepting a transplant I also deprive the next person on the list, which could ultimately lead to their death,” he said. “ Ultimately, I chose to accept a transplant because I felt I could honor the gift.  I will try to live a good, productive life, taking care of my body and my donor’s gift and hoping my impact is felt by the people and institutions I am able to help along the way. I believe we are all here to help each other, to bring God’s heavenly reign to earth, and I am thrilled to have a chance to do my part.”

Bernheisel said he attributes much of the courage and peace he and his family experienced to the  power of prayer and the support of hundreds of people within the Union community and beyond.

Bernheisel is back in Jackson and is healing well. He plans to return to his work at Union full time in the fall.

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