Walker in hospital for liver transplant

After celebrating his 38th wedding anniversary Tuesday, Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker received a late-night phone call summoning him to Portland for a much-needed liver transplant.

At 4 p.m. Wednesday, the 68-year-old Phoenix resident was being prepared for surgery at Oregon Health & Science University to remove his failing liver and replace it with a donor organ, a complicated procedure that lasts nine hours on average.

"He's waited a long time for this," said his wife, Andrea, after a sleepless night.

Though nervous about the risky operation, she said she is keeping her spirits up while hoping for a successful outcome.

"He's a tough guy and he's been through a lot already," she said. "He's got a good heart, good lungs and a good kidney."

Walker's condition was unavailable. Hospital officials said he was being prepared for surgery, but couldn't confirm whether he was undergoing the operation.

"He's going in with a very positive attitude," Andrea Walker said Wednesday.

Jack Walker, who is in his 14th year as commissioner, has Crohn's disease, which causes a wasting of the intestines and afflicts about 1 million Americans.

In 2005, he suffered complications from surgery to remove a 6-inch section of intestine.

Since then he has been diagnosed as a diabetic and was placed on a liver transplant waiting list.

Chris Walker, Jack Walker's niece and Jackson County clerk, said Jack went into the surgery room at 4 p.m. Wednesday, but the family won't hear any additional information until a new organ is placed into his body.

"It could take eight hours or it could take 24 hours," Chris Walker said. "This surgery is a little more intense than heart surgery."

In the meantime, Andrea Walker and the rest of the family will be waiting.

Chris said the operation is so complicated that surgeons wait until the patient is opened up before making the final determination to perform the transplant.

"At this point we can say there are no guarantees," she said.

Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith said, "Our hopes and prayers are with Jack, and we are praying for a successful outcome."

Commissioner Dave Gilmour couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday because he was out of the country on vacation.

Andrea Walker said she made Jack a Thanksgiving dinner Tuesday night, preparing her husband his favorite spiral ham to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

He received the call from OHSU at 1 a.m. Wednesday. By 2 a.m. Walker and his wife were on the road, arriving at the hospital after 6 a.m.

During the morning he underwent a battery of tests to check on his health to make sure he was ready for the surgery.

According to an OHSU manual on liver transplants, the donor and recipient are selected based on blood type and body size.

The surgical incision is large, shaped like a boomerang extending up to the chest. The old liver is removed, while major blood vessels and bile ducts are carefully left in place. A patient receives transfusions of blood during the surgery.

The operation could take longer if the patient has had previous abdominal surgery because of scar tissue.

According to the OHSU manual, the average length of stay in the hospital is 14 days. Complications include rejection of the organ or infection.

After the surgery, patients will have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives.

Patients on the liver transplant waiting list have to generally be in good health. Sometimes, they don't get the transplant fast enough so their health can decline.

"He was very fortunate to be called," Andrea Walker said. "Everybody is congratulating him that he is here."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

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