Lifelong Schaumburg resident Freddie Martinez kicked his alcoholism 13 years ago and has remained sober ever since.
But one last great battle awaited him as the cirrhosis he and his doctors had been managing for years finally required a liver transplant to save his life.
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Though his illness had forced him to stop working in June, the operation on Sept. 12 marked what would have been his 25th anniversary as a custodian at the Schaumburg Township District Library.
To the delight of his longtime colleagues there, Martinez became the 1,500th liver transplant recipient at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago since it began doing the procedures in 1993.
"Think how big this city is," the quickly recovering Martinez said. "Fifteen hundred people going through that humbles me and makes me realize I'm a small fish in a big pond."
The emotional roller coaster the 48-year-old was on for nearly a year before his transplant was one his close friends and colleagues rode with him.
"It was hard for us," said the library's Serials Supervisor Cindy Barger, who's worked with Martinez and lived in the same apartment building nearby for 21 years. "We weren't sure if he would recover. We weren't sure if he would get a transplant. And we knew the first few days afterward would be precarious."
Dr. Michael Abecassis, founding director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, performed the first liver transplant at the hospital 20 years ago.
With the introduction of drugs like Ciclosporin to prevent tissue rejection, the operation now has more than a 90 percent success rate, Abecassis said.
But needing a liver transplant due to either acute liver failure or chronic liver disease is still a rocky road for any patient, he added.
One reason for that is changes to the rules governing the transplant waiting list. Whereas patients previously stayed in largely the same order in which they'd joined the list, changes implemented in the late 1990s mean the sickest patients now go first.
While this ensures that the sickest patients are always a top priority, it also nearly guarantees that all candidates are going to get very sick before receiving a transplant, Abecassis said.
Abecassis hopes that more and more people will sign up to be organ donors. While about 10 percent to 15 percent of Northwestern Memorial's liver transplants involve living donors, that isn't the preferred procedure.
The liver is the only organ of the body that can completely regenerate, Abecassis explained. Living donors are usually required to give up about 60 percent of their own livers in order to help the recipient.
Among the reasons living donors are considered a second-best solution is that surgeons are forced to bend their Hippocratic oath by making a healthy person worse than they were before, Abecassis said.
Despite all the difficulties for liver patients, Abecassis emphasizes that there's a strong possibility of returning to a normal life after a transplant.
"I've really been impressed by how courageous these patients are," he said. "The message is don't give up. If you make it to the transplant, you're going to be fine."
That's exactly the attitude Martinez took into the ups and downs of the past several months. His primary care doctor at one point even offered him hospice options to consider, but Martinez didn't want to think that way.
"There's no hospice in me," he told his doctor. "I'm ready to put up a fight."
But even with the toughest attitude in the world, there were still dark moments, he confessed.
"I got worried about sleeping," Martinez said. "You didn't know if you were going to be here the next day. It was a very emotional time."
Martinez was alerted of a possible donor a couple of days before the surgery, but that person turned out not be a match. Luckily for him, a second donor turned up not long afterward -- a 55-year-old man who had been declared brain-dead.
As a precaution, Martinez's youngest sister volunteered to be a living donor in case the deceased man's liver again turned out not to be a match.
"That was something to know that in four and a half hours you're going to be a new man or a casualty," Martinez said. "I think what it comes down to is you need to have faith in yourself. And you really learn the good in people."
The turnaround Martinez felt after the operation was almost immediate. Four days after the procedure, he was sitting up doing his banking again. After six days, he was resuming his exercise habit by taking a slow but steady walk along Michigan Avenue.
"The doctors have said my overall strength is what got me through," Martinez said.
Though Martinez has gained 10 pounds since the operation, he still is 30 pounds below his normal 145 pounds and he is under a 10-pound lifting restriction.
He hopes to return to work in about four months, but likely in a different capacity. He's already taking computer classes at the library to build more professional skills.
"I can't justify my disability check," Martinez said. "That's not who I am. That's not how I was raised. People here have seen me sick. Now I want to show everyone my finished product."