Lincoln County couple celebrates gift that keeps on giving

Published 10:00 pm Saturday, December 21, 2013

THE DAILY LEADER / KIM HENDERSON / Ward Blackwell acknowledges he couldn't have made it through his cancer battle without the help of his wife, Gail. "She made me do the things I didn't want to do, but had to do," Ward laughs, using his hands to show the size of some of the pills Gail helped him take. "She's been a very good caregiver."

THE DAILY LEADER / KIM HENDERSON / Ward Blackwell acknowledges he couldn’t have made it through his cancer battle without the help of his wife, Gail. “She made me do the things I didn’t want to do, but had to do,” Ward laughs, using his hands to show the size of some of the pills Gail helped him take. “She’s been a very good caregiver.”

Ward Blackwell is seeing things differently this Christmas than he did in past ones. Funny how a liver transplant can affect someone’s vision that way.

It’s been nearly a year since that cold January morning when Ward and his wife, Gail, were in Jackson taking what they thought was a smart step: establishing themselves as new patients with Reeves Darby, a physician who had cared for Gail’s dad.

“We knew it would be hard to get in with a gastro specialist if something happened, so we decided to make the connection,” Gail recalls. The couple got more from their appointment than they anticipated, however. Ward’s routine colonoscopy showed something Dr. Darby thought looked like cancer.

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That was the day, according to the Brookhaven couple, their world turned upside down. For the next several months their life would become a rollercoaster ride filled with trips to Ochsner’s Hosptial in New Orleans, bone density tests, blood samples, internet research, anti-rejection pills, and learning to lean on their church family.

In late January, doctors at Ochsner’s made the decision to treat two spots they found on Ward’s liver by an injection process called chemoembullization. Round one came on February 5, and after the second in April, it appeared the cancer was contained. That success led Ward’s doctors to broach the subject of a long-term solution to his condition – a liver transplant.

“We went to a meeting so the transplant team could explain everything to us,” Gail says. “When they told us we’d have to stay in New Orleans a lot of the time, my first question was,’Where?'”

That’s when a nurse introduced the Blackwells to Hope Lodge, a facility sponsored by the American Cancer Society. After touring the nearby three-story building with its residential inn-type accommodations, the Blackwells knew they would have a home away from home. Gail shares, “We were told that Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints gave a million dollars to make the Hope Lodge possible. It’s a beautiful place.”

The Blackwells’ rollercoaster ride also included other surprising twists along the way, including two false runs to Ochsner’s for a donor liver. The first organ was found to be too large for Ward, and the second time they got the call, Ward was only a back up for the patient who actually ended up as the recipient. In spite of these disappointments, the couple continued to keep their suitcases packed and their car’s gas tank filled. That was a wise move, because a third call came on June 21, and this time it was a go. Nearly two months would pass before the Blackwells would return to their home.

Ward speaks of his liver donor with great respect. “He was only 25 years old. I lost a brother that age and I know what it did to my parents, so I pray for his family. I’m thankful he chose to be an organ donor.” Ward is hopeful that the donor’s family will choose to let him make contact after the first of the year. “I really want to be able to thank them,” he says.

The Blackwells have learned that recovery from a liver transplant is serious business. There have been additional hospital stays, an 80-pound weight loss, immunity issues. In fact, upon discharge from Ochsner’s, Ward was told to stay away from crowds.

“We had to be real careful about being around anyone other than family members,” Gail explains. “We needed to be the last ones in church and the first ones to leave.” She smiles at the memory of the concern shown by their church family at Nola Baptist.

“Someone put a sign at the end of the pew saying that row was reserved for Ward. He didn’t like attention, so he took it with us when we left.”

Ward, a retired oil field worker and plumber, admits there were struggles.

“The toughest part about the transplant has been all the things that go through my head, like will the cancer come back? And I felt worthless because I couldn’t lift anything.” He also says there were times when he felt like giving up. “The pain was pretty bad, and I was worried that if I got on too much medication I wouldn’t be able to get off of it.” But Ward is looking at things a lot differently now.

“Take something simple like mowing,” he says, “I love to mow now because not too long ago, I couldn’t. I could hardly get out of the bed.” Sit-ups and barbells are helping him regain muscle strength, and he’s answering questions about his progress with a standard, “Better than I deserve.” Gail says she feels the very same way.

“We have been blessed more than we ever deserved,” she says. “We had a wonderful medical team and a place to stay where we made lifetime friendships. There’s a lot for us to celebrate this Christmas.”