‘How could I live without him?’

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‘How could I live without him?’

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Baek Ji-yong, 80, and her husband, Jeong Min-so, 81, enjoying a sunny day. Five years ago, 70 percent of Baek’s liver was consumed by cancer. Jeong stepped in and offered more than just her heart. Aged 76 at the time, Jeong’s surgery was and remains the world’s oldest live-donor liver transplant ever performed. [WOO SANG-JO]

It takes Jeong Min-so, 81, up to an hour to carefully spoon-feed her husband at the National Cancer Center cafeteria in Goyang, Gyeonggi.

“I feel sorry for her,” said Baek Ji-yong, 80. “We’ve decided to leave the world together on the same day.”

“The same month is okay, too, if it isn’t the same day,” Jeong replied.

When Baek was diagnosed in April 2012, 70 percent of his liver was already consumed by cancer. Jeong authorized a live-donor liver transplant. At the time, Jeong was 76 and Baek was 75.

It was supposed to be medically impossible.

“Even now, the live-donor liver transplant at the age of 76 is a world record,” said Kim Sung-hoon, head of liver transplants at the National Cancer Center. “In the West, there are no donors in their 60s and though there are a few in Japan, there are no cases in the world involving patients in their 70s.”

Korea performs the largest number of live-donor liver transplants, and subsequently its techniques are top-notch and the length of time required for the surgery and hospitalization are far less than average.

The surgery was a great success and there have been no problems since.

“The two of them were inseparable,” said Kim, who published an article with the American Society of Transplantation about the transplant. “The affection they held for each other was the glue needed for a successful surgery.”

When cancer first struck Baek in 2004, he had a portion of his liver excised. But he kept drinking, and his untreated hepatitis B resulted in a relapse of liver cancer.

Prostate cancer was also discovered, and Baek subsequently underwent radiation therapy.

His liver cancer came back in 2011, but this time it was late-stage. Surgery was deemed impossible.

Embolization, or the injection of a substance to block or reduce blood flow to cancer cells, did not work. As the tumor became larger, he was given six more months to live. A liver transplant was the only option remaining.

“No matter where I went in Korea, they said they couldn’t treat it,” said Jeong. “After living together so long, how could I live without him?”

His wife insisted that she donate her liver, but medical professionals rejected her as there was no precedent for a live-donor transplant from a 76-year-old woman. But Jeong was persistent, and Kim eventually said, “Well, let’s start with a checkup.”

“During the examination, there was definitely going to be an abnormality,” Kim said, “and when that happened, I was going to insist on persuading her that I could not perform the surgery. But there were no abnormalities. I had no grounds on which to reject her besides her age.”

While her two sons and one daughter offered themselves as donors instead, it was found that all three had contracted hepatitis B and were unsuitable.

The night before the surgery, her 47-year-old daughter said with desperation, “If something happens, we’ll become orphans.”

“I heard that I may die because the heart is stopped during surgery,” said Jeong. “And I thought, ‘Oh well, if I die, I guess that’s that.’ There was nothing more to it.”

BY SHIN SUNG-SIK [hwang.hosub@joongang.co.kr]

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