Across two states are two strangers with two things in common: their love for Tennessee Tech and compatible organs.
Texas resident Ray Matthews, a 74-year-old Tech alumnus, was in search of a liver donor last year. He was diagnosed with polycystic liver disease, a condition that caused over 200 cysts to grow on his liver. The weight and size caused discomfort as it pushed against his vital organs.
Time was running out for an organ transplant due to a 75-year-old cutoff. In order to quickly spread the word and hopefully find a donor, his wife Mela created Rayneedsaliver.com in August 2020 and shared the website on social media platforms.
“I wasn’t hopeful, I really didn’t think [I would find a donor],” Matthews said. “Being 74 and being in good shape helped…to be on the national list of being a transplant recipient. Your age is going to kick you from finding a donor. [We received] few responses from the website…I was about to give up.”
Three weeks later, a Tech faculty member answered the call.
Kevin Braswell, University Advancement vice president heard about Matthews’ story through his wife, Leigh Anne. She saw a Facebook post of a friend between her and Mela with information she had shared about the website and notified her husband. After reviewing information on Rayneedsaliver.com, Braswell realized he could be a serious candidate.
“I thought wow I could be a match for him, and how wonderful it would be since he is a Tech graduate,” Braswell said.
According to the National Donor List, Matthews’ donor would have to be between the ages of 21 and 55, have matching blood types, body size, and other factors. Seeing that Braswell volunteered, and he met several of the requirements, Ray and Mela flew him to San Antonio to undergo two days of intense tests to confirm the probable compatibility.
“Since he is young and in good shape, it seemed like a likely match,” Matthews said. “The antibodies in his body perfectly matched mine.”
Representatives from the University of Texas at San Antonio and a surgical team gathered the information and carefully reviewed the data before agreeing the surgery would be successful. The transplant team consisted of cardiologists, liver surgeons, transplant coordinator advocates, and other medical professionals. Braswell said thanks to their rigorous process, UTSA has never had a fatality on their transplant operation table.
“By October 13 we were both on tables in operating rooms in surgery,” Braswell said. “So in two months we had met and were being operated on.”
Before surgery could begin, both Braswell and Matthews were quarantined for two weeks and had to pass a COVID-19 test, otherwise, the operation would be canceled. Thankfully, the results were negative and the operation proceeded. The night before surgery Ray, Mela, Kevin, and Leigh Anne sat together and supped on a liver cleansing soup.
Donor and recipient reported to UTSA ready for operation at 4:30 a.m. They visited the chapel for a moment of prayer and were escorted to the holding area of the operating room.
“It was eerily cold in there, which is normal, and then they set me up on the operating table,” Braswell said. “I had chosen to have an epidural placed, so they did that first…they numbed my back with a few shots and inserted the epidural. I remember the anesthesiologist asking if that felt okay, I said yes, and then I don’t remember anything forward.”
The surgery lasted 16 hours. Five was spent on removing .75 of Braswell’s liver. The surgeon removed the organ portion and placed it in a preserving solution until Matthews was prepared for the operation.
“Kevin was next door, and the liver was in his station area, and I was looking at all this equipment, and it was amazing,” Matthews said. “All of a sudden they asked if I was ready, and I said, ‘I’m ready’ and then I blacked out.”
The remaining hours were spent removing the 24-pound beast from his body and replaced it with a near 2-pound portion of Braswell’s liver. After the long operation, both men were in separate rooms recovering successfully. Once Matthews came to, he said he recalled not feeling anything at all but later felt nausea and pain from the surgery. He had an intricate IV tree that branched to his heart arteries.
“It was pretty aggravating actually, it took a lot of stamina to tolerate all of that, it was not an easy deal,” Matthews said. “The doc came by and said ‘your liver…wore me out. I was in there for a total of 16 hours in the OR. I had to lift it with both arms. It was just totally covered by cysts I mean you couldn’t even see it.’”
As a recipient, it can take up to a year to fully recover. Matthews continues to recover in his Austin, Texas home. Due to the amount of medication he must take, he is now immune suppressed. Due to COVID-19 he has remained quarantined but is thankful for state parks and his backyard garden.
Mela Matthews said this story was not about a life-saving surgery, but about self-giving of humanity.
“When we met with the doctor, he said there are angels out there,” Mela said. “I told him later…in this jaded world we live in I didn’t think that it would really happen. The real story here is how caring and selfless people are. People couldn’t wait to help, and it just went boom, boom, boom. And there was Kevin, and he was our angel, and he’s such a strong Christian man and his wife Leigh Anne is wonderful.”
As a donor, it does not take long to recover. Within ten weeks of the surgery, Braswell was back to his favorite hobby: riding his motorcycle. He experienced a few health complications, but they have been resolved. Braswell said, although he does not have as much stamina or energy as before, he is nearly 95 percent recovered.
“The liver regenerates itself, so both the portion left behind and donated will rejuvenate into a normal size liver,” Braswell said. “Long term effects, I have some scar tissue of my incision, but other than that I don’t anticipate any long-term impacts. I have absolutely no regrets for doing this.”
Although this whole journey included Braswell having to visit San Antonio several times, undergo intense tests, and miss several weeks of his job, he said the main motivation behind all this was “to help Mr. Matthews.” Both families have kept in touch over the past few months and Braswell said, “they are just wonderful people.”
“I would strongly encourage others to step forward and consider organ donation,” Braswell said. “It is perhaps the most rewarding experience I have ever had.”
Thanks to the surgery, Matthews has another 20-25 years to live.
Matthews graduated from Tech in 1975 with a master’s in wildlife and fisheries. He has worked for the TWRA and the Smoky Mountains National Park.
Braswell continues to serve as the vice president of the University Advancement at Tech. He has stepped down from teaching temporarily to ensure his health remains stable.