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A transplant patient's Christmas miracle
Gainesville's Don Little takes life day by day as he returns home to recover
Don Little arrives Wednesday afternoon at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville after flying back home from Indiana, where he underwent a complete abdominal transplant. The surgery is only performed at a few hospitals across the country.

There's nothing like having your world turned upside down to give you a new perspective on life.

On more than one occasion, Gainesville resident Don Little appeared to be knocking at death's door.

"Things have been hairy all year. He's had some close calls," said his wife, Debbie Little. "I've had to call the cavalry in because his doctors didn't think he was going to make it."

Since March 22, Little has been in the hospital recovering from an abdominal replacement surgery, also known as a multiorgan, or multivisceral, transplant.

Through the surgery, he received a new stomach, pancreas, liver and small intestine. His organs had been ravaged by cancer.

Almost nine months later, Little returned home. He was greeted Wednesday by family and friends at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville.

"I feel so blessed that so many people would come out," Little said from his hospital room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where he is undergoing observation.

"Seeing all of my family and friends is the best part of being back."

In June 2006, Little was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That particular form of cancer isn't that rare; according to the American Society, 1 in 71 American adults will get it.

Less common was his particular type of pancreatic cancer. Testing revealed that he had neuroendocrine tumors; such cases represent less than 4 percent of all pancreatic cancer diagnoses.

Things got complicated when his doctors discovered that it had metastasized and spread to his liver, stomach and small intestine.

"He went through all kinds of treatments and trials," Debbie Little said.

"They would contain his symptoms for a while and he'd go along with a good quality of life and then (the tumors) would start growing again. Then he'd have to go on a different kind of chemotherapy.

"We finally reached a point where nothing was working."

A specialist referred the couple to Dr. Rodrigo Vienna at Indiana University Health University Hospital, who specializes in the multivisceral transplants.

"Multiviscerals are like replacing an engine," Debbie Little said. "They replace all of the organs in one block."

Although there are a few other hospitals nationwide that perform the complicated transplants, the Littles chose the Indiana hospital because of their shorter wait time.

"The average wait time (for organs) there is between three to six months. In other places, it's around 18 months," Debbie Little said.

One reason the wait time is shorter is that the Indiana hospital's surgeons procure their own organs rather than waiting to get them from a third party. To be placed on the hospital's transplant list, Little had to remain within four hours of the hospital. That meant the couple had to relocate to Indiana temporarily.

Leaving behind their home and family - including sons Jeremy and Jordan Little - they arrived in Indianapolis on Sept. 27, 2010. He was placed on the transplant list the next day.

"We had a couple of false starts," Debbie Little said. "We thought we had the organs we needed a couple of times, but it didn't work out for one reason or another."

The couple finally got the call they wanted in March: A matching donor was found.

Although the surgery went well, the healing process wasn't without a few hitches.

"His body was so beaten down from the chemotherapy that it didn't pop back like it would have if he'd had the surgery before he did the chemo," Debbie Little said.

"Because of the chemo, he developed lymphoma after the surgery, so they had to treat that. He became septic a few times because of line infections and his esophagus had a small leak in it that they had to go in and repair.

"There were a lot of complications."

Ordinarily, patients are able to go home after a few weeks, but Little remained hospitalized — with his wife by his side — from March to present.

It takes a village

"I don't think people realize the stress the caregivers go through in situations like that," said Beth Lathem, a Gainesville resident and a Little family friend.

"(My husband Jerry Lathem) and I tried to go up about once a month before (Little) had the surgery, just to give them both support.

"My husband is retired, so while (Little) was recuperating, he would go up for about a week at a time to give Debbie a break. He was there a lot at night, so that Debbie could go home to get some sleep.

"When (Little) was critically ill, we didn't know if he was going to make it or not, so someone stayed with him around the clock."

All in all, the Lathems made about 10 trips to visit their friends. Four of those trips included driving nine hours to get there - "stopping once for food and gas."

"We've been friends for probably 35 years. Debbie is just like a sister to me. Our kids grew up together and we took family trips together," Lathem said.

"When you love someone like that, you'll do anything you can to ease their pain. We talk everyday, sometimes two or three times a day, and I could hear it in her voice when she needed help.

"Once around the end of July, I could tell she was at a low point, so I caught a flight and got there at 12:30 in the morning and just stayed with her to be her support.

"For nine months, she drove back to that empty hotel room while her husband was fighting for his life in the hospital. I couldn't imagine going through that alone.

"It's been a tough road for her, so you try to do what you can do help."

The Littles' relatives also made sure their presence was felt at the hospital at least once a month, says Connie Stephens, Don Little's sister.

Holidays were especially hard on the family, but they persevered.

"My parents and our sons came up for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas," Debbie Little said.

"We've had every holiday here in the hospital for a whole year, but the whole transplant floor celebrates together. We're like a family.

"For our anniversary, Don's nurse cleaned him all up, made a banner on the computer and even went out and got flowers and a card for him to give to me. Everyone has gone out of their way for us.

"I just appreciate them so much."

'A miracle ... before our eyes'

Just as his family was beginning to wrap their minds around celebrating another holiday with their loved ones far away, they got the best news they've heard in a while. Little's doctors determined it was time for him to go home.

"When his plane landed ... it was a miracle happening before our eyes," Stephens said.

"We didn't expect him to come home. There were many times in Indianapolis where the doctors called us in because they though he was going to die.

"We're overjoyed to have him and Debbie home."

Stephens wasn't the only person waiting for the couple at the airport. Nearly 100 well-wishers were there holding "welcome home" banners and fighting back tears.

Even if a tracheotomy tube didn't make talking for him difficult, the overwhelming show of support would have rendered him speechless.

Little says the most important lesson that he's learned over the past year is to, "take things day by day. You make it through today and worry about tomorrow the next day."

On the other hand, his wife has developed a new found appreciation for the sacrifice that the families of organ donors make in the midst of their grieving.

"We have always been organ donors, even our boys. Even if you have it on your license, unless you have it in a will, it's up to your family whether or not to make the donation," Debbie Little said.

"Until now, I never realized how much the donor family goes through. For the multivisceral transplant, the person has to be declared brain dead. After that's determined, they wait eight hours and do a CAT scan to make sure they're still brain dead.

"Twenty-four hours pass before the person is officially dead. Imagine what that poor family must be going through, but what a gift they are giving so that someone else can live.

"What a sacrifice."