Log in Subscribe

A liver for a life

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 10/22/22

Brian Riddle of Shelbyville is a walking miracle.  

In May 2021, the normally upbeat, outspoken, insurance agent walked into work feeling more fatigued than usual. His co-worker noticed. …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

A liver for a life


Brian Riddle of Shelbyville is a walking miracle.  

In May 2021, the normally upbeat, outspoken, insurance agent walked into work feeling more fatigued than usual. His co-worker noticed. Brian rushed to the doctors, thinking he had had a stroke.  

Little did he know it was probably the high ammonia levels and lack of blood flow to the brain from what doctors diagnosed as non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. Brian was told he was going to need a transplant.

In hindsight, he recalled his doctor saying, “The only chance you’ve got is to get on Vanderbilt’s liver transplant list.”  

He was finally put on the list last February after running through a series of extensive tests. How quickly a patient gets on the list is based off the MELD (Model for End-stage Liver Disease) score, which runs from 6 (not life-threatening) to 40 (very life-threatening.) Brian said his score stayed around 25, reaching the highest at 27.  

“He told me, ‘You’re going to turn yellow; you’re going to blow up; then you’re going to die.’ I said you’ve told me the bad things, now tell me something good.” Brian laughs at the memory today but at the time it was sobering.  

There are several factors that can cause nonalcoholic cirrhosis, like fatty liver, cancer, and genetics. Brian’s mother actually passed away with complications from cirrhosis at the age of 51, though they didn’t know it at the time.  

His doctor suspects the liver problem had been going on for several years, which explained Brian’s worsening condition.  

“It’s something that transpired over the whole time I was on the waiting list,” he said. “I would get a little worse, and a little worse, and a little worse. And the last month before I got the transplant, everybody told me I was really, really bad.”  

For his wife, Tonya, it was like watching a slow death. “I was sitting there watching him pretty much die,” she said.  

A Shelbyville native, Riddle met Tonya when he was a “paper boy.” They married as soon as she was 18, according to Brian; they celebrate 41 years together.  

“Yeah, for better or for worse,” added Tonya with a smile. Brian notes how it’s Tonya who helped him get through the last year.  

Being a caregiver was “very exhausting.” Tonya said it was like caring for an Alzheimer’s patient when Brian was at his worst.  

“That’s honestly how I felt, like an Alzheimer’s patient,” Brian said.  

It was a very unusual time, especially since Brian has always been an active man. On top of selling insurance with Dennis Young since 2007, Brian owned Flat Creek Market for 8 years in addition to working on a 100-acre farm.  

But by 11 every morning, he would feel exhausted and would have to stop work.  

“He couldn’t pick up his feet to get up the steps,” said Tonya. “And I had forgotten how much he likes to talk.”  

While waiting for a liver, Brian also went through the live donor process. His niece, Michelle Parkin, underwent a series of extensive testing to get ready to donate half of her liver.  

“Around last Christmas, we were all talking as a family and found out I was the same blood type as he is,” she recalled. “I’m from a family of service . . . . They’ve always given a lot, so that’s how I was raised. If I’m able to, why wouldn’t I?”  

Already an organ donor, Michelle said, “We really just push being an organ donor for everyone . . . it’s just your body. But you could help someone’s life so much.”  

However, 5 weeks before the procedure, Michelle got COVID, restarting the whole testing process.  

“Bless her heart, she went through so much testing,” said Brian. “And then I got so bad, they said we couldn’t wait for her.”  

But it worked for the best, especially since getting only half of a liver is riskier.  

While on the list, Brian was asked if he would be okay with receiving a hepatitis liver or one from a cardiac patient.  

“If it’s living or dying, I’ll take whatever you got,” he told the doctors.  

“We were just at that point,” added Tonya.  

But Brian got a call. He said Vanderbilt had him two livers in two days, which is rare. The first one was deemed unsuitable. So, it was the next they got the call to come back in.  

“I didn’t have time to take a shower,” recalled Brian. After another series of tests and a biopsy on the liver, the procedure wasn’t until 2 a.m. on Sept. 22.  

The liver came from a 50-year-old stroke victim, which is the “best kind” of liver to receive since the patient only experienced brain damage but remained otherwise healthy.  

The procedure took almost 9 hours. In the meantime, Tonya waited, receiving a phone call every hour updating her on Brian’s condition.  

“I don’t know what I was thinking. I think I was in a fog. But I was very positive the whole time, saying he’s going to be fine, because I know how he is,” she said.  

“My doctor told me so many people get depressed and give up. He said you never did that,” Brian said.  

The results were almost immediate. “The doctor told me, ‘Man, you’re a miracle. When I put you to sleep last night, I honestly didn’t think you’d wake up,’” Brian recalled. Though liver transplants have an 80% success rate, Brian said the likelihood of success for this procedure was only 1 out 10.  

There’s still lots of medication to take as well as check-ups every week. But it’s worth it to have life.  

Brian’s doctor said he’s going to have to take it easy for the next several months—which Brian admits will be a challenge. For now, he can focus on work and going to his favorite car shows.  

“I’ve got to be careful because I am one of those guys that wants to go all the time.”  

“But I feel honestly like I did when I was 50 and I’m 62. I feel great. I have my beautiful wife and two great kids. I’m just a happy guy.”  

Plus, the support he’s gotten from those friends and neighbors has been “unreal.” Hundreds gathered in his neighborhood recently to welcome him home.  

Michelle said life is fabulous. “Everyone talks about how the old Brian is back.”