A reason for thanks

Pastor returns home after liver transplant

Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2002

The Rev. John Bigelow, pastor at Bethany Baptist Church in Juneau, led a service at Wildflower Court on Friday.

It was remarkable not for the Bible lesson or for the singing, but because Bigelow was there, greeting people and wheeling residents in and out of their rooms. Just a few weeks earlier, Bigelow was a patient at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, recovering from a liver transplant, subsequent infection and the unexpected removal of his colon.

Bigelow and his wife, Judy, returned home to Juneau last week, in time to celebrate their 41st wedding anniversary on Monday. Bigelow, 63, said he is doing well, but tires easily and has trouble writing because of anti-rejection medication. He plans to resume his ministry at the church in mid-December.

"This liver was in very good shape," he said Saturday, at a welcome-back party at his church. "I'm grateful, very grateful. It has worked very fine."

It has been an especially rocky few months for the couple. Bigelow was put on a liver transplant list two years ago, after he was diagnosed with cryptogenic cirrhosis.

In June, he left for Seattle on short notice after receiving word of the availability of a donated liver. But it turned out to be false alarm. He got another call on July 29. An 18-year-old high school golf champion had died in a car accident on his way to a game. The young man was an organ donor and a liver was available.

"And before I went for the transplant the doctor said, 'This is going to work, this young man was in excellent health,' " Bigelow said. "From the moment the liver was put in my body ... it was working like a champ."

The liver, the largest organ in the body, regulates the blood and removes toxins. In someone with cirrhosis, scar tissue replaces normal, healthy tissue and keeps the liver from working as it should. Cirrhosis sometimes is caused by alcoholism, but not in Bigelow's case - he doesn't drink. Hepatitis C tests also came back negative, he said.

Bigelow was walking around the hospital two days after the transplant, but soon faced complications. He contracted a hospital infection that went up and down his legs and into his colon, he said. He needed another operation.

"On the 26th of August they met with my wife and talked with her and they said, 'There isn't a whole lot we can do. He's about to go.' " he said. "So they went in, removed my colon and two days later I started to turn around the other direction and get better."

Judy Bigelow was staying with a couple in West Seattle who had volunteered their downstairs apartment. She learned to navigate Seattle's highways, went to the hospital each day and prayed with her husband.

"I was spending every day, seven days a week, at the hospital," she said. "Every day in the morning I would go to the hospital and come home at about 9 or 10."

In all, John Bigelow spent nine weeks at the hospital, including three weeks in intensive care when he was nearly comatose. He was discharged Oct. 4, but stayed in Seattle for more tests and therapy. A fall brought another setback. He will return to the hospital in February for another liver biopsy and for more surgery on his colon.

"I have to go back in three months, six months and then a year for biopsies to check to make sure the liver is functioning," he said.

The Bigelows moved to Juneau in 1987, before Bethany Baptist moved into a big house at the end of Forest Lane in the Mendenhall Valley. The congregation, which has about 60 members, pitched in during the Bigelows' absence. Some of the men in the congregation took over services until interim pastor Bill Bursell and his wife arrived from Wasilla. Others called to check on the Bigelows in Seattle, sent cards and mailed boxes of goodies, Judy Bigelow said.

"We saw God working in many, many ways," she said. "It was wonderful."

At the gathering Saturday, children played in the cul-de-sac outside the church while grownups welcomed the Bigelows back with cake and punch.

John Bigelow, who sat in a chair by the window, said his wife and God helped him through the ordeal.

"I tell my congregation and the people I've spoken to at other churches that the doctors don't have the final say, God has the final say," he said. "He's the one who kept me alive.

"I understand that a liver transplant is probably the most difficult part of all the transplants, even more difficult than a heart transplant because they have to bypass your heart to remove the liver. God gives the doctors the learning and the ability to do this.

"But I really wasn't depending on the doctors as much as I was depending on God to get me through. And I really think God helped my wife ... It was a difficult time for her, probably more difficult for her than me."

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.

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