AMERICAN FORK -- One day into Christmas vacation 16-year-old American Fork resident Brittany Howes had no idea that a medical journey was about to ensue. She hadn't been feeling great, and her parents, Ben and LuRae Howes, had tried the usual remedies. Since none had helped her to feel better, LuRae Howes took Brittany to see the family doctor.
"I figured we would go to the doctor, get medicine and go home," she said.
The doctor did an ultrasound and some blood work and sent Brittany straight to Primary Children's Medical Center for an immediate blood transfusion.
Brittany said she was scared as they headed to Primary Children's.
"I was freaking out because they said that I needed a blood transfusion," Brittany said. "I didn't know what that was or what they would do, and I didn't expect to stay overnight. Looking back now, that was the least of my concerns."
Within two days, Brittany underwent three blood transfusions and was diagnosed with polycystic liver disease, which causes the liver to create cysts all around it.
LuRae did what any good mom does in a new medical situation. She went right to the Internet. It said that in extreme cases, a liver transplant would be in order. Sure enough, after several days at the hospital, the family was told that Brittany would be put on a waiting list to receive a new liver.
"When I was told that I needed a new liver, it was kind of scary and shocking," Brittany said. "You don't think it's ever going to happen to you. Everything felt psychotic and confusing. There was one thing after another. They would say something and then change it. I didn't know what the words meant. It was like, 'What's wrong with me?' My mom really helped me. She wasn't freaking out. She tried to stay strong and explained everything to me as we were going."
Staying strong was no small task for Brittany's parents, but they found strength even under the circumstances.
"Through a lot of this, friends, family and neighbors gave me that strength to keep going," LuRae said. "All the prayers people were saying for us -- you could almost feel them, feel the peace."
Brittany came home the day after Christmas break ended to go back to school and wait for a liver. The problem was that the wait could be months, and Brittany was starving. Her liver had grown to 20 pounds and was pushing her other organs. Her stomach was so crowded by it that all she could eat were nutrient-dense foods in tiny amounts. She also was told to use extreme caution because her blood was not clotting -- even a bump showing no external signs could cause severe internal bleeding.
She went back to Lone Peak High School and tried to resume normalcy. Only a week later, the Howes family got the call for which they had been waiting. They were told to get to Primary Children's for a midnight transplant. They were excited and terrified at the same time.
"I was excited that my stomach would be flatter, and that I would feel better, but I was scared because they had to cut my stomach open," Brittany said. "But we only had a couple of hours, so I didn't have a lot of time to think about it and stress."
After six long hours, the transplant was complete and doctors changed Brittany's diagnosis to hemangioma, a rare disease in which veins in the liver merge together and create blood-eating cysts. This was a more serious diagnosis and made the miracle of a short transplant wait time all the more crucial. She was pronounced cured with the removal of the diseased liver and given a new lease on life.
At that point, Ben Howes was thankful for the transplant and able to keep a sense of humor even while anxious to see if his daughter's body would accept the new organ.
After the surgery he said, "We just met with the surgeon, it went better than anticipated, but also more complicated than expected and her body hasn't reacted as well to blood product as expected. They are going to try to control bleeding with medicine, giving 10 percent chance of having to go back into surgery."
Brittany said the hospital stay after the surgery was good and bad.
"Everyone is at your beck and call and will get medicine to you right away if you hurt, which was the best part. The worst part is that everyone comes in and out and worries about you. I like to do things on my own and not have to have people help. I can carry my own bag. I don't need people to help me."
Perhaps it was that independent streak that helped Brittany breathe on her own faster than expected, get out of ICU early and come home at surprising speed.
LuRae said the whole ordeal happened fast, from that first doctor visit to the final hospital release.
"Less than a month later, she got a transplant. Who would have thought?" LuRae said. "Even the doctors said this happened so fast and were surprised at how quickly it all went. I think it was supposed to happen that fast. I felt like Brittany's grandma, who had been a nurse and passed away last May, was watching over us."
She said that they, and especially Brittany's younger sister, Jenny, are relieved and happy that Brittany is safe and at home. They also are thankful to the family of the donor.
"Brittany has a new life ahead of her," LuRae said. "We are so grateful to the donor family. I've thought about them constantly and how much we appreciate what they have done for us."
She said she better understands what families go through when they have a child who is suffering or facing a severe medical procedure and feels more connected to them. In addition, she better understands the donor program and feels everyone should be a donor, as it can bring new life.
"I feel like we have a new outlook on life and how precious it is," LuRae said.
Brittany agreed and said she feels like a changed person.
"I think I'm more sensitive to things now," Brittany said, "and don't judge people as much because I don't know what they've been through."
Brittany has some advice for other teens going through tough medical ordeals.
"Try to stay strong and not overthink it too much," she said. "You want it to be a good experience. Don't stress about it too much. The doctors know what they are doing. Trust them. Also have someone you can talk to or write in a journal. You need to get all your thoughts out."
Brittany said it makes her feel good to know that people care. She has become a stronger person because of her experience.
"I feel like I can handle pain more," she said. "Before the hospital I wasn't even able to take pills. I'd gag and want to throw up. Now I take 14 in the morning and seven at night. I also thought I wouldn't be able to get my blood drawn, but now it's no big deal. One of my veins exploded and my arms are bruised. I'm all bruised up, but I'm good. I feel better."