9 Investigates

9 Investigates: Saving organs to save lives

CHARLOTTE — The wait for a life-saving organ transplant can be agonizing for patients.

The shortage of organs is a national crisis, and many are left wondering if they will get the gift of life in time.

For years, doctors have been forced to throw out organs from people infected with hepatitis C.

Anchor Allison Latos learned that here in Charlotte, doctors have discovered how to save those organs and save lives.

Sharon Price, 73, is known to his family and four grandchildren as “Pop.” Those close to Price say he is fun-loving and energetic but over the summer, his health took a drastic turn after repeated kidney stones led to him being diagnosed with stage 4 kidney failure.

“I was to the point where I was giving up,” Price said. “I really, truly felt like I was at the end of the rope.”

“Did you worry you might not see your grandkids grow up?” Latos asked Price.

“Yes, I did,” he said.

Price said he wanted to see his grandchildren go through college and make it on their own.

“My only hope was a kidney,” he said.

Price was on two kidney transplant lists.

“But Dr. Vincent Casingal told me that can take three to seven years, and many patients don't survive the wait,” Price said.

Surgeons must make sure the organs they transplant are healthy.

For years, that meant avoiding any infected with hepatitis C, for fear it could make the recipient extremely sick.

Casingal said the infected organs were thrown in the trash.

“Yes, a very high-discard rate,” he said.

“Here you are with a lifesaving organ in your hand, ready to go, and you can’t use it?” Latos asked.

“People who develop hep C and liver failure can develop cirrhosis, liver failure, develop liver cancers, get sick and die from it,” Casingal said.

Doctors at Atrium Health can now cure hepatitis C by giving patients oral medications.

Doctors said there are drugs that can eliminate the dangerous virus 95% to 98% of the time.

A few other hospitals do this as research but at Atrium Health, it's no longer experimental.

In June, Price became their first patient to receive a kidney infected with hepatitis C.

“I feared dialysis more than I feared that,” he said.

Price didn't develop hepatitis C, but it's expected that 80% of patients who receive infected organs will get the disease.

It’s no longer devastating now that doctors can treat and cure hep C.

“It absolutely saved my life,” Price said. “I have no doubts about that, whatsoever.”

Price is healthy nearly eight months after receiving a new kidney.

“It was like new life,” he said. “I've been reborn again.”

Price is back being “Pop” for his grandkids.

“I get up and thank God every morning, twice a day,” Price said. “Once in the morning and once at night.”

So far, surgeons at Atrium Health have transplanted seven hepatitis C-positive organs, kidneys and livers. They are also transplanting hearts with the virus too.

“What happens if a patient develops hepatitis C after an organ transplant?” Latos asked Price.

“Doctors told me that treatment normally involves six to 12 weeks of taking oral medicines,” Price said.

The meds are extremely expensive, but most health insurance policies cover them.