Passengers Give Up Plane Seats for Cincinnati-Area Man to Get Home for Liver Transplant

Fort Thomas Father, Husband Gets Home in Time to Receive Life-Saving Surgery

by Elizabeth Beilman

Jon McSorley hadn’t felt like himself for years. But he didn’t realize how sick he looked until he was at a baseball game with his son and his son’s 5-year-old friend, who looked up at him and said, “You look green and yellow.”

“That’s when it kind of hit me,” said Jon, who lives in Fort Thomas, Ky. “But I won’t hear that now. I have a lot of people to thank for that.”

The comment came just a week before a whirlwind 24 hours—two flights (one barely made), a transplant surgery and true human generosity—that changed Jon’s life forever.

In 2016, already living with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, Jon learned that he had a rare condition called primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC. This condition causes narrowing of the bile ducts, causing liver damage and in some cases, cancer.

As time went on, and tests showed Jon’s liver function was steadily declining, it became clear that he needed a liver transplant—the only cure for PSC. His physician referred him to the UC Health Transplant team.

While he was preparing to register on the donor list, tests at UC Health revealed more shocking news: Jon found out on Jan. 6, 2019 that he had cholangiocarcinoma. Cancer of the bile duct.

Shimul A. Shah, MD, section chief of transplant surgery for UC Health, delivered the news.
“I’ll never forget January, when we had that first meeting with the team [after the cancer diagnosis]. Dr. Shah came in and said encouragingly, ‘You have cancer. We’re going to deal with it. Good luck—but you’ll be back,’” Jon said. “Since then, it’s been a roller coaster of emotions.”

Jon underwent four and half weeks of treatment at Mayo Clinic—36 radiation treatments and chemotherapy administered every 30 minutes through a pump—in order to be eligible for a living liver donor transplant there. Meanwhile, he was dual-registered through UC Health for a deceased transplant, to maximize his chances of receiving the new liver he so desperately needed.

After his treatment in Minnesota, he returned to UC Health and continued chemotherapy under the guidance of Tahir Latif, MD, interim director of UC Health Hematology Oncology.

By then, Dr. Shah estimated Jon might find a liver match around mid-July—so it didn’t seem unreasonable for Jon and his wife, Sara, to fly to Minnesota for a PSC conference on Thursday, June 20.

That’s why it was such a shock when both Sara and Jon, having just landed in Minneapolis, turned on their phones to find that the same Cincinnati-area number had tried to call them while they were in the air.

Jon listened to a voicemail from UC Health liver transplant coordinator Anna Weber, RN, BSN, who said, “We have a liver. Dr. Shah has made reference that it’s a perfect fit for you. Can you get here?” He hadn’t even left his seat yet.

Jon told Anna he had just landed in Minnesota. How soon did he need to get back? She called Dr. Shah, and relayed his message: by midnight.

It was 8 p.m. eastern time.

Jon and Sara rushed out through the gate, not knowing what to do, and immediately saw a Delta lounge. Jon told an employee there that he needed a flight back to Cincinnati that night because a new liver was waiting for him. But he was told that all flights—on every airline that night—were full.

Another employee told the pair to run to a gate at another concourse, where a plane was heading back to Cincinnati. She gave Jon a high five and “congratulations”—a small gesture that “changed me,” Jon said.

“We went from, ‘This isn’t going to happen’ to, someone’s helping. ‘We’re going to get you there,’” Sara said.

They rushed to the gate only to find that the flight was overbooked by two people. Everyone was boarded, with just Jon and Sara at the gate. According to an account from a passenger, an employee boarded the plane and asked over the intercom that if anyone was willing to give up their seats, to turn on their call lights.

The McSorley Family

No lights went on.

She asked again, but this time, she told the passengers that Jon and his wife had a new liver waiting for him back in Cincinnati.

About 20 call lights turned on. When two volunteers left the plane, the whole flight applauded. He called his transplant team at UC Health to deliver the news: he was on his way home.

The plane landed at 11:18 p.m. Friends drove him straight to the hospital, and he found that a room at University of Cincinnati Medical Center was ready and waiting for him.

“The fact that UC was willing make sure I got back in town and hold out hope that this could be mine … I’m just thankful to this moment that they did,” Jon said.

It’s the same kind of care Jon and Sara have received from UC Health “every step of the way,” Sara said.

From Cutler Quillin, MD, a transplant surgeon who delivered news with the “perfect tone,” to Joannie Foster, his liver transplant nurse who responded immediately to Jon’s questions at all hours of the day, to Rodney, the nurse who shaved Jon’s head as he’d wanted to do himself for a long time—all rose to meet their needs with utmost compassion and dedication.

On Friday, June 21, 2019, Jon received a new liver. His color is back now.

One of the first things Jon said when he woke up: “I feel like me again.”

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