Tim McCabe headed to Wantagh Park one balmy day earlier this month and walked more than a mile without taking a break.
For some people, a mile might not seem like much. But to the 51-year-old father of two from North Bellmore, this was an impressive feat. McCabe, who has battled numerous autoimmune diseases since he was a teenager, is slowly building his stamina after receiving a new liver less than two months ago.
During surgery, doctors found something else: two tumors in his bile ducts. While they are hopeful the cancerous tissue was removed during the surgery, he will still undergo a course of chemotherapy.
“The liver was supposed to be it,” McCabe said. “I never thought I was going to hear the C word … it was like a cruel joke.”
WHAT TO KNOW
- Tim McCabe, of North Bellmore, who has several autoimmune diseases, received a new liver in March after waiting almost a year. Years earlier, he received two kidney transplants.
- McCabe hopes his story inspires more people to become organ donors.
- Fewer than half of New Yorkers age 16 and older are organ donors, according to LiveOnNY, the federally designated organ procurement organization.
McCabe said he “gave myself a day” to be angry and then moved ahead to face his latest health challenge. He has shared his story publicly over the years, including with Newsday last July, in an effort to encourage more people to become organ donors.
Over the past 20 years, McCabe has undergone three organ transplants — two kidneys and the liver he received in March — as well as numerous hospitalizations and medical procedures.
“I could have given up a long time ago,” he said during an interview at his home earlier this month, seated next to his wife, Christina. “But I wouldn’t and she wouldn’t let me and neither would my kids. I need to be here for them and I want to be here for them.”
Years of health challenges
McCabe’s medical history is so long and complex, it almost reads like chapters in a textbook.
At age 16, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and in 1996 had surgery to remove part of his colon. About six years later, he was found to have a rare blood disorder that left him in a medically induced coma for more than two weeks.
In 2003, he was brought to the hospital with congestive heart failure. Doctors discovered McCabe had Goodpasture syndrome, an autoimmune condition that was causing his kidneys to fail. Christina donated her kidney to him in 2004. A little more than 10 years later, he needed another kidney and received a transplant.
In 2020, he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the liver bile ducts.
Tim credits Christina, 50, as the loving and tireless, driving force in his life for more than two decades. She helps oversee his care, calling and researching facilities and treatments around the country.
When they discovered Tim needed a liver transplant, Christina got tested immediately with the hopes she could be a donor. She wasn’t a match.
Undaunted, Christina offered herself as a donor for someone else with the hopes it would make a matched liver available for Tim. She dropped 40 pounds in preparation for the possible surgery.
Meanwhile, Tim’s condition worsened, as the bile ducts grew more narrow and bile accumulated in his liver, causing infections.
His team at NYU Langone Health performed multiple procedures to open up the ducts. But there was no relief from the fatigue that left him exhausted from the time he woke up each morning.
“The doctors were great and did whatever they could,” he said. “I had to push through it.”
'You need to answer every phone call'
In early March, the McCabes met with Dr. Karim Halazun at NYU Langone Health, a transplant surgeon whose specialties include livers and bile duct conditions.
Officials at the NYU Langone Transplant Institute recently had expanded its liver transplant program, using new techniques.
“Our experts are skilled in transplanting organs that other centers deem ineligible for transplant, making more lifesaving organs available to those who need them,” the center said in a statement.
The McCabes were impressed by Halazun’s knowledge and direct manner assuring them “you are on my radar,” Christina recalled.
After the appointment, she turned to her husband and said, “You need to answer every phone call now,” emphasizing he could no longer screen calls to avoid telemarketers because the call for a transplant could come at any time.
The call came on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, from Halazun, who said, “I think I have a liver for you.” Less than 24 hours later, he was in surgery.
Tim had been the “backup” if the initial patient could not receive the liver for some medical reason. In the early morning hours of March 18, he was told the liver was his.
Christina documented their journey on social media. It also gave her the support she needed during those difficult hours of waiting.
“I thought we needed to put it out there and have a whole bunch of people get together and pray,” she said. “Then we have got a good shot at this.”
During the surgery, she stayed in touch with her 13-year-old son Ryan, who was home with family. Their eldest son, Tim, 21, sat with her at the hospital.
Her husband emerged about eight hours later with the new liver, 76 staples across his chest and gratitude.
“Even when I was in the recovery room, I felt great,” he recalled.
He later found out about the two small cancerous tumors in his just-removed liver, one in the liver duct and one in the pancreatic duct. Tim will be monitored during and after he undergoes chemotherapy for any signs the cancer has returned.
In the meantime, he is continuing his recovery and relishing the fact he wakes up in the morning “ready to go” rather than exhausted.
The McCabes are hoping their story inspires others to become organ donors and helps dismiss myths about donation.
There are 106,740 people on the national waiting list for organs and 8,464 waiting in New York, according to figures from the nonprofit LiveOnNY, the federally designated organ procurement organization. Less than half of New Yorkers age 16 and older are organ donors.
“You can save so many people as an organ donor,” Tim said. “Some people think if they go into a hospital and they are an organ donor, [doctors] will not try to save them, and that’s not true.
“Three times I’m a transplant patient, and without it I wouldn’t be here,” he added.
“He’s a transplant survivor,” Christina said, adding “and soon to be cancer survivor.”