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As they walked along the beach and collected stones on a warm, sunny day in Hawaii in 2019, Rob and Amanda Blasius of Phoenix reflected on the challenging medical odyssey that saved Rob's life just a year earlier. That's when he underwent a liver transplant at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Arizona.
To honor Rob's precious gift of a liver, he and Amanda stacked rocks that formed a "cairn," a mound of rough stones typically built as a memorial. They also draped a necklace over the rocks to honor Rob's hero — an Arizona mother gone too soon.
Puzzling health concerns
Rob's journey to a liver transplant began in 2018, when he was battling a slew of other medical issues related to his excess weight, a condition caused by a genetic disorder that was discovered during testing. Five years earlier, Rob underwent a lap band procedure that he had hoped would help him lose weight. During the procedure, surgeons made an unsettling discovery.
"Rob was told that his liver didn't look 100% OK," Amanda recalls hearing from his physicians.
As a result, Rob was advised to seek a gastroenterologist for further testing.
Two years later, while Rob was having a checkup to evaluate his liver issues, he instead was rushed to an emergency department at a Phoenix hospital. It was discovered that he had esophageal varices, a condition occurring in people with significant liver disease. Again, Rob was advised to seek further testing.
Seeking answers at Mayo Clinic
Rob and Amanda decided to contact Mayo Clinic in Arizona, where they hoped they would find answers to Rob's liver issues.
Rob's complex case puzzled his Mayo physicians, but they were determined to find an answer. It was discovered that Rob's family has a history of cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, typically as a result of heavy drinking or hepatitis. In Rob's case, it was neither. Instead, he has alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency ― a genetic deficiency that causes liver disease and difficulty losing weight.
After a week of testing, Rob's medical team at Mayo Clinic confirmed that Rob would eventually require a liver transplant.
There isn't a 'me' without Rob
"Being in my 30s, I'm thinking I'm supposed to have my partner for the rest of my life," says Amanda. "There isn't a 'me' without Rob." Through it all, Amanda says that Rob kept his sense of humor. She still teases him about how the movie "Frozen" always put him to sleep.
Keeping the faith while awaiting liver transplant
Rob and Amanda kept their faith, hoping they had the courage to push through the wait for Rob's liver transplant. They were warned by their physicians that it could be a couple of years before a matching liver would become available. Still, Rob was adamant about remaining grateful and positive. "There's no sense in dwelling on the negative side," he says.
'Seeking recycled parts'
Although the need was great, Rob and Amanda abstained from posting Rob's critical need for a liver on social media. But one Friday, Amanda gave in and posted a photo of Rob wearing a T-shirt she had made for him. The shirt had the image of a liver and read "Seeking recycled parts."
Just five days later, Rob and Amanda were stunned with the news that an anonymous family had declared that Rob be the recipient of their loved one's liver upon her death. It was a viable liver, and it was successfully transplanted into Rob.
"We didn't know who the donor was, which was strange," says Amanda.
Second surgery addresses Rob's weight issue
Less than 24 hours after Rob's liver transplant, he underwent a sleeve gastrectomy, a procedure for liver transplant recipients that has been shown to keep weight off. At the time of his surgery, Rob weighed 540 pounds. By the time of the two-year anniversary of both of his surgeries, he had lost 240 pounds. Rob is grateful for being able to move forward and spend time with his family, doing activities he only dreamed about before the surgery.
A surprise encounter and a son's selfless gift
For nearly a year following Rob's lifesaving surgeries, he and Amanda kept wondering who Rob's anonymous liver donor was. Then by chance while on an errand, Rob met up with a friend whose mother had died during the same week that Rob received his lifesaving liver. The friend asked Rob how he was doing.
"It seemed like a weird question to ask, and yet I saw that he was crying," says Rob. At that point, Rob began putting the pieces together. "I asked him, 'Your mother was my donor, wasn't she?'" The answer was yes. It was an emotional moment for Rob and Amanda, as well. The son said he also chose to donate the rest of his mother's organs to people in need of a transplant. "It was what she would have wanted," he told Rob.
"In their time of grief, they thought of Rob and his need," says Amanda. "For him to make that kind of sacrifice is just miraculous."
During Rob's five-month stay at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Amanda slept in the chair next to his bed. She made him laugh and always made sure that someone was with him all the time.
With Rob now back at work, Amanda was able to finish her degree and become a nurse practitioner. Since then she has worked in COVID-19 critical care areas during the pandemic and hurricane relief efforts across the U.S. Rob says that once the threat of the virus is over, he plans to travel with her.
Rob's life has transformed since his surgeries. Before, he was unable to walk more than 100 steps without feeling winded. "Now he is full of energy," says Amanda.