For many Cal Poly seniors, June 16 will mark the day that they get their degree, enter the “real world” and start their careers. For Brandon Facon, graduating means moving to Indiana to get his second liver transplant.
In only 10 days, Danielle Facon, Brandon’s sister has raised $24,610, nearly half of her $50,000 goal through GoFundMe. The money she raises will go toward the extra expenses from the new liver her younger brother will hopefully receive this summer.
But, this won’t be the first time.
General engineering senior Brandon is living with three autoimmune diseases: autoimmune hepatitis, primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) and Crohn’s disease. He suffers daily from nausea, jaundice and extreme fatigue.
In 2012, Brandon had his first successful liver transplant, but there is no cure for these diseases and he will soon need another.
“I got my first transplant to hopefully suppress and cure that disease … but unfortunately the disease has just come back,” Brandon said. “It’s gotten back into my liver, reactivated, so I basically have another acute version of that in this new liver, so we’re kind of back in the same process.”
At 8-years-old, Brandon was diagnosed with three autoimmune diseases.
“It kinda just started out out of nothing,” he said. “It was kinda just like regular tests, I wasn’t feeling too well here and there … in fact, when I was a kid my parents didn’t really tell me about it, they kinda just said, ‘Oh there’s nothing wrong,’ and I just lived my life normally.”
Autoimmune hepatitis is a disease that occurs when the body’s immune system, which ordinarily attacks viruses, bacteria and other pathogens, instead targets the liver and causes inflammation. PSC is a disease that essentially closes all of the veins and pathways in the liver, preventing it from filtering out waste. Crohn’s disease is an inflammatory disease of the digestive tract.
To put it simply, Brandon’s liver was in extreme danger.
It was not until high school that Brandon noticed how acute the effects were. During his sophomore year, Brandon was unable go to school because he was sleeping about 20 hours per day.
“At that point I didn’t really have an immune system. I was constantly sick, I was constantly having a cold, I was constantly just battling illnesses and flus,” Brandon said. “I didn’t really have much energy. It’s hard to feel productive and have a, I guess, fulfilling life.”
When senior year came around, the Facon family started searching to find Brandon a new liver.
California’s long wait times for transplants made moving out-of-state the only option.
“My family actually moved to Indiana, across the country, to get a liver faster,” he said. “[It] was kind of our last option, it was not something we wanted to do.”
In California, the approximate wait time for a liver is two to three years. In Indiana, Brandon got his new liver in less than four weeks. Indiana is an “opt out” state, meaning residents are automatically organ donors unless they “opt out.” In California, drivers must elect to become organ donors.
“The transplant process is pretty interesting. It’s this mix of, you have to be healthy enough to get the transplant and survive, but you have to be sick enough to actually warrant a transplant,” Brandon said.
To get on a transplant list, Brandon said he first had to go through the ultimate physical exam.
“They kind of run you through the gauntlet. They give you every single test they can throw at you,” he said. “MRIs, CAT scans, X-rays, blood tests, transfusions, biopsies — they kind of pick you apart and kind of see how healthy you are.”
There is an ordered list of names for liver transplants, but potential recipients do not know exactly where they are on the list. Each transplant candidate is given a Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, which measures the risk of each patient with an extreme liver disease.
“You do normal blood work and they take values out of your blood work under liver function, your blood count and antibodies and they kind of give you a score that says, ‘You are this sick and this is how you relate to other people on the list,’” Brandon said. “There isn’t really any other way of distinguishing you on the list, whether it’s how much money you make, what type of insurance you have.”
Sitting in a hotel room in Indiana, all Brandon and his mom could do was wait for the call that would potentially save his life. Brandon said the hardest part was learning what he has control over.
“When you don’t have control over it, you really start thinking about death and how that’s never something you have control over, so it’s not something to be afraid of,” Brandon said.
On Aug. 10, 2012, Brandon received a new liver from Erica, who was killed in a car accident and donated five of her organs.
“Someone else has to pass away for me to survive and to have a second chance at a life,” Brandon said. “For me, my angel was a 22-year-old girl named Erica. She was from Indiana and she had three kids. She liked chocolate cake, ATVs and karaoke, and she was the person who saved my life.”
Brandon stayed in Indiana for several months after his successful transplant before coming back home to San Diego. After taking the year off to recuperate from the transplant, he started college at Cal Poly.
“Not having a liver to having a liver was a very humbling experience. You don’t really understand all the things an organ really does until you don’t have it,” Brandon said.
Despite the seemingly successful transplant, Brandon’s body was not fully healed.
“You end up going on a bunch of immunosuppression medicine, you end up again not having an immune system because I had an organ in me that wasn’t mine,” Brandon said. “My body wanted to fight it, my body wanted to reject it. It just didn’t recognize it as my own.”
Preparing to begin his second liver transplant journey, Brandon said he simplified many aspects of his life. He called the process, “letting go.” While getting a liver transplant was never his plan, Brandon said he has remained positive throughout his journey.
“I looked at the people in my life that really added to my life but I also just looked … at what supported me,” he said. “I was kind of happy and ready for a new beginning because nothing else was an option.”
You can sign up to be an organ donor and help save a life, just like Brandon.