Winsted-Lester Prairie Journal, Dec. 27, 1999

Virgil Latzig: miracle on Dairy Avenue

By Luis Puga

To the Latzig family, the term "miracle" is very appropriate.

This Christmas, they will have celebrated the one year anniversary of the day that Virgil Latzig woke up from a successful liver transplantation to the happy faces of his family.

Without hesitation, his wife, Ruth, calls Virgil her Christmas miracle.

However, if you ask Virgil about the months of waiting and surgery, he simply says, "I was nowhere around."

And he wasn't. Due to an unfortunate side affect of the cirrhosis of his liver, he was in and out of comas for a six-month ordeal last year.

The cirrhosis in Virgil's liver was uncommon. Typically, cirrhosis is caused by a bad blood transfusion, excessive drug use, or excessive alcohol use.

However, Virgil had none of those causes in his history. When he was finally diagnosed with the condition in December 1997, he was told that he was one of 25 percent of cases that has an unknown cause.

What prompted that visit to the doctors at Ridgeview in Waconia was actually a previous hernia surgery in November 1997. After the surgery, Ruth said that things got bad for her husband as his abdominal cavity was filling with fluid.

After seeing many doctors, the family ultimately saw a specialist who diagnosed Virgil's condition, but also advised them that they would be travelling a mine field from now on.

Due to his condition, the chance of a hemorrhage in a thinned esophagus was great. On July 23, 1998, Virgil had his first hemorrhage and had to be taken by ambulance to Fairview Hospital in Southdale. The bleeding was stopped, but Virgil fell into the first of a series of comas.

This was due to the build-up of ammonia in his system. Ruth admits that she had never thought that the same product found in cleaning products would be one found in humans, and would cause her husband to lose consciousness.

From then on, the story is a whirlwind of doctor's visits and "frightful" trips to the emergency room. Daughter Pam Fiecke said that her father visited the emergency room three times in eight days.

Also, beginning in mid-August, he was hospitalized on three separate occasions. It was at that time that Virgil required special care and had to be put in Auburn West, a nursing home in Waconia.

In part, this was due to the numerous comas. Since he was unconscious often, his muscles began to weaken and he had trouble even buttoning his own shirt.

During this time, the tests began to determine whether Virgil could be a candidate for a liver transplant.

The Latzigs were told that a lot of testing would have to be done to determine if he could be put on a list for transplantation. This included a great deal of blood work, and Ruth recalls that at one point, doctors drew out 23 tubes of blood from her husband.

Other tests included a heart stress echo to test the durability of his heart for surgery and an ultrasound to, literally, examine the valves that connect the liver to the rest of the body to match up size. Beyond that, a candidate cannot have any other ailments to be eligible for transplantation. This is due to cost and availability of organs.

At this time, the Latzigs were put on a list. A computer search would begin to look for a donor in the state, region, and entire country.

What prompted this was the recommendation of doctors from the University of Minnesota. Essentially, Virgil's condition had become so bad that he needed the surgery urgently.

This meant the beginning of the wait. Ruth was given a pager and was told to carry it everywhere until a donor became available.

A large part of transplantation is waiting. For the family and patient, there is a pattern of waiting for tests, eligibility for candidacy, waiting for the donor, waiting through the surgery, and waiting to see how the organ will take.

Ruth describes it as a test of faith. When the process began, the family was waiting for Virgil's condition to get worse so surgery would be available.

In November last year, the ordeal for the Latzigs was about to end. At this point, Virgil was at the hospital in the U of M, with an eight-member transplant team waiting to hear for an organ. As of November 13, he had been on the list, a big step for a patient.

In early December, Virgil fell at home and cut his forehead, needing nine stitches. He then needed a shunt to relieve pressure from hemorrhaging. That surgery took four hours and 10 days in intensive care.

It wasn't until December 23 that the word came that a donor was available. All the family knew, and would ever know, is that it was a young man from Fargo.

After hours of prep time for surgery, and a 12- to 15-hour procedure, an excited Dr. Abhinav Humar cam to the Latzigs in the waiting room at about 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 24 and proclaimed the procedure a success. That Christmas, Virgil woke up with a fully functioning liver.

Upon waking on Christmas, he would say, "Here comes those three bums," to his daughters and wife. That joke let them know that he was alright.

More than a year later, it is hard to tell that he has even had surgery. Not only was the operation a success, but the physical and occupational therapy was successful as well.

At each stage, Virgil proved to be a quick healer, beating the deadlines for his expected recovery.

Not only that, he is a testament to the importance of the liver as a natural filter. His wife observes that he no longer has a cholesterol problem as he did before the surgery.

Throughout the telling of the tale, there is an evident sense of humor about the ordeal.

Even a neighbor, Bernie Wessling, jokes about how he missed Virgil at the nursing home in Waconia by a day when he went to visit.

What is also evident is a great deal of gratitude to a myriad of physicians, social workers, and staff who helped the Latzigs on the way to transplantation.

Of course, a great deal of gratitude also goes to a young man who checked "yes" on his driver's license for organ donation. Ruth calls that "the gift of life," and is a firm believer that everyone should do the same as their donor did.

According to the Latzigs, they were told that of the 16,000 people currently on the list for liver donation, only 4,000 will actually get a transplant.

Also peculiar to the liver is that there is no stop gap for its absence. There are heart and lung machines, but the shunt, which Virgil had, was only a measure to bide time.

As for Virgil, he appreciates his new liver. He feels everyone should go through some kind of similar experience to appreciate what they have.

Bernie Wessling adds that people don't appreciate what they have until they lose it. To that, Virgil said, "I lost it."

Christmas will be a much different affair for the Latzigs this year. There will be no hospital and they won't come home to presents that were literally covered in dust after a prolonged absence. Nor will they celebrate in February.

Yet Ruth said that last year was the best Christmas for their family.

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