Macomb Township woman continues to defy health odds

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published November 5, 2018

 Melissa Kwiatkowski, 29, of Macomb Township, gives a thumbs-up while at the hospital. Throughout the past decade, she has had multiple major surgeries, including a liver transplant.

Melissa Kwiatkowski, 29, of Macomb Township, gives a thumbs-up while at the hospital. Throughout the past decade, she has had multiple major surgeries, including a liver transplant.

Photo provided by Oakland University

 Melissa Kwiatkowski stands with her husband, Paul, while on a recent trip to San Francisco.

Melissa Kwiatkowski stands with her husband, Paul, while on a recent trip to San Francisco.

Photo provided by Oakland University

CLINTON TOWNSHIP/MACOMB TOWNSHIP — The last decade has been a whirlwind for Melissa Kwiatkowski.

A Macomb Township resident now, she grew up in Clinton Township and attended Miami Elementary School, Wyandot Middle School and Chippewa Valley High School.

It wasn’t until 2004 when things took a turn. The now 29-year-old recalled having stomach pains one day that were so severe, she wouldn’t even let her doctors touch the affected area. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, essentially causing inflammation and sores within her digestive tract.

But the symptoms subsided with medical aid, allowing for her to continue living her life. She did just that, until two years later.

Another trip to the hospital ensued, resulting in the removal of her gallbladder. Following successful surgery, doctors were confused when she turned jaundice. It was then determined that she had a rare disorder called primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC — a progressive liver disease influenced by inflammation and scarring of the bile ducts.

According to the National Institute of Health, about 6-16 of every 100,000 people have PSC. Numbers could be skewed due to those who have PSC, but were never properly diagnosed. It was odd in her case, because those most likely diagnosed with the disease are men between the ages of 30 and 50, although ulcerative colitis is a major symptom.

“I was 17 years old and had no idea what was going on,” she said.

Yet, she persisted. She graduated from CVHS in 2007, and then enrolled at Oakland University to chase her dream of being a high school history teacher. Her brother, Chad, has a history degree and teaches AP History at Rochester High School, further inspiring her in her academics.

She did notice subtle differences between her and those in her friend groups.

“I was sometimes really tired, but led a pretty active life. … I just kind of thought that’s how everybody was,” she said. “I didn’t understand how my friends stayed up all night and could make class at 8 a.m. the next morning.”

Kwiatkowski graduated from OU in 2013.

She was hired as a high school history teacher at the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, and in 2015, she decided to pursue a master’s degree.

The urge for scholastic success came naturally from her family. Her mother was a preschool teacher, her brother has a master’s degree, and her sister has a doctorate and teaches at Missouri State University.

“I just feel like my entire family has had an entire focus on education,” she said.

It was Christmas dinner, about one year into her next level of learning. Not even able to stomach one of her favorite dishes, cheesy potatoes, she knew something was awry. And when eating cereal made her nauseous, she had an even worse feeling.

One month later, jaundice set in and calls were made to a hepatologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. An endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography test was conducted, determining that Kwiatkowksi’s bile ducts had shut down. It was time for her to get on a liver transplant list.

Testing consumed basically all of January, and paperwork was exhausted throughout the majority of February. In the final week of February 2017, she got the green light that she was successfully placed on the list.

At the time, she was feeling quite ill, couldn’t eat, slept an exorbitant amount and had little energy to live her life. But on Ash Wednesday, just one week after being placed on the list, she received the news: They found a donor.

“I got this phone call and was like, ‘Oh my God, mom, pull over,’” she recalled.

Once the hospital retrieved the liver and tested it, they called her back and told her to stop eating, to shower and be downtown by 10 p.m. The March 3 surgery lasted about 9 hours.

She later found out that the liver was actually split between her and an infant. All she knew was that the donor, concealed due to HIPPA laws, was between 20 and 30 years old.

“I thought that was pretty cool and pretty rare,” she said. “This donor, whoever this wonderful person was, was able to save two lives with the liver rather than just the one.”

Following the transplant, doctors discovered bile duct cancer. Doctors were alarmed, because usually patients with PSC should be cured with transplants. Kwiatkowski’s Model for End-Stage Liver Disease, or MELD, score — which measures survival chances — was bouncing between 24 and 27. Patients with PSC usually tread between 12 and 15.

Kwiatkowski said she wasn’t sure how doctors didn’t know she originally had cancer, saying “they were false negatives” that weren’t known. Bloodwork was also normal.

It was later determined that a tumor was really close to one of the connecting bile ducts to another organ. Her then-boyfriend, Paul, and her mother switched days at the hospital to provide moral support.

Ultimately, a Whipple procedure, also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy, had to be performed. Kwiatkowski referred to it as the “granddaddy” of all surgeries, rerouting her insides and resulting in the removal of her pancreas and small intestine.

That procedure took about 5-6 hours.

“Basically, my whole inside digestive tract is completely different than anybody else,” she said. “They said they had never had a patient with both the transplant and the Whipple done.”

Coining her situation as a “medical miracle,” she began to seek support groups on social media. She suffered a recent setback and had to be readmitted to the hospital due to a virus and the installation of a biliary drain through her abdomen.

Now, she has more confidence in her ability to plan for the future. She teaches sophomores and seniors at the International Academy. She married Paul on July 23, and the couple even flew out to San Francisco for a trip.

Following her most recent health scare, she and Paul decided to postpone a Christmas trip to Hawaii, saying she takes things “day by day.”

“Nobody really explained to me that when you need a transplant, you don’t just get it right away,” she said. “That’s what 17-year-old me didn’t understand. You wake up yellow and are rushed to the hospital. There’s a fear of being alone.

“People don’t always promote the hard things they’re going through. You have to look for stories. I want others to be inspired. … You don’t know what people are living through, or what they are dealing with. I can fight a little bit longer.”