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The Best Birthday Ever: Virtua Center for Organ Transplantation Gives Ocean County Woman Second Chance at Life During Pandemic

Bernadette Brooks marked her 40th birthday with strawberry shortcake and a small group around her to celebrate. But this year she got an extra-special gift: a new liver.

Her joy was tempered, however, because instead of her husband and three children by her side, she could only be joined by staff at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital because of COVID-19.

“I cried a lot. Some of it is a blur now,” said Brooks, of Bayville, Ocean County, who received her transplant on April 11, 2020. “It all happened so suddenly. I wasn’t prepared to be away from my husband and kids during a six-week hospital stay.”

While many surgeries were placed on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Virtua kept its transplant program operating, allowing patients the opportunity to receive a new kidney, pancreas, or liver. Virtua performed 22 transplants from the time COVID-19 took hold in the area in March 2020 through mid-July 2020.

Brooks, who had liver failure due to alcoholic hepatitis, arrived at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes on March 26 after treatment at two other hospitals.

“I had been hospitalized two weeks prior, and they said there was no evidence of liver failure,” she said. “Then in a matter of three weeks, being on medication, and not having anything to drink, my liver deteriorated.”

Brooks considered she considered going to Johns Hopkins Hospital for her transplant, but was denied due to COVID-19 safety concerns. But with a very high Model of End Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, time was of the essence. She was added to the national organ wait list on April 7.

“She might have died if we didn’t complete her evaluation and list her,” said Hisham ElGenaidi, MD, Virtua Medical Director of Hepatology.

Brooks said that as she had been hospitalized for three weeks when COVID-19 cases began to spike, and she had no fear of catching the virus at Virtua.

“I had heard some of the news, but I hadn’t been around. I hadn’t been in stores. I wasn’t fully experiencing it. I was afraid because everyone else was afraid, but I hadn’t experienced that part of the pandemic first hand,” she said. “But I was facing a transplant. I was more nervous about that.”

Brooks thanked the staff for helping her deal with the physical isolation from her family, whom she talked to via phone.

“The nurses, the doctors, the whole team, they were amazing. They gave me the perfect balance of my own space and support,” she said.

Brooks was released from the hospital to acute rehab on April 24. Now recovering at home, Brooks is thankful for her gift of life.

“I feel a million times better. Everything worked out for a reason, as well as it could have,” she said.

To learn more about organ transplantation at Virtua, visit www.virtua.org/OrganTransplant.

Updated August 3, 2020

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