Soldotna boy wakes up with new liver

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On his first day out of sedation Sunday, 12-year-old Jacob Eckerman asked for hot dogs, hamburgers and Otter Pops.

“His dad told him he was going to get an Xbox 360,” said his mother, Michelle Eckerman. “He might have muttered that, too.”

After undergoing three operations to secure a new liver, Jacob is finally doing well but will not be able to return to his Soldotna home for four to six weeks, Michelle said. He and his family currently are staying at the Ronald McDonald House across the street from Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, where the transplant took place.

Michelle and Jacob’s aunt, April Yucina, said they knew something was wrong in March when Jacob couldn’t seem to shake a nasty bout of the flu.

“We took him to the ER because he had belly pains,” Michelle said. “Our local hospital did an ultrasound and they saw that several of his organs were really swollen. From that, everything was just kind of a whirlwind.”

After their local doctor did blood work on Jacob, the Eckermans were sent to a specialist in Anchorage, where a biopsy revealed he had instage liver disease.

“He has Wilson’s disease, a genetic disease,” Yucina said. “My sister and his dad are both carriers and no one knew it. His liver had been completely shot for quite a while.”

Two weeks ago, the specialist in Anchorage sent Jacob and his family to Seattle, where, after a week, doctors had a new liver ready for him.

“He got it right away,” Yucina said. “We lucked out.”

But Jacob wasn’t able to obtain the liver without complications. After going through a 12-hour operation to place it, doctors discovered that blood wasn’t penetrating the deepest part of the organ.

“Whenever a liver is donated, (doctors) automatically save the vessels from the donor,” said Michelle, a nurse at Central Peninsula Hospital. “They already have the donor vessels and hook (them) from the liver to a big vein.”

But after blood was restored to the area, it began to bleed, badly, so Jacob was brought in again for surgery.

“They cleaned him all up and brought him back out,” Michelle said. “We avoided the fourth one — barely.”

As a nurse, she said she has experience working with transplant patients, but nothing prepared her for this.

“We’re all organ donors,” she said. “Until you’re on this side of it and it’s one of your own, you still don’t know what it’s like to receive one.”

Jacob’s liver transplant was possible partly through donations and fundraisers from the communities of Soldotna and Kenai.

Joyce Shuler heard about Jacob’s predicament through prayer requests made at the College Heights Baptist Church, of which the Eckermans are members. She and Yucina organized an auction of pottery, garden supplies, fishing trips and pies to raise money. They succeeded in raising $18,000.

Though there currently are no plans for more fundraising events, Shuler said there is an open account with Alaska USA for those who still want to donate.

The account number is 1322365, she said, adding that for those who want to know how Jacob is doing and to send him well wishes, they can visit his Web site at

Michelle said even after the auction, the outpouring of help from the community is overwhelming.

“(It’s) very humbling,” she said. “We can’t say thank you enough.”

She said Jacob’s school, Soldotna Middle School, held a bake sale.

“There were only three dozen cookies and brownies, and one of the kids said, ‘Why don’t we do this for Jacob Eckerman,’” she said. “When word got out, they ended up making $600 over three dozen brownies and cookies. They brought it to us in an envelope. It was just amazing.”

Once Jacob is home, Michelle said he will still have to return to Seattle and Anchorage periodically for check-ups and lab work, but through it all, she said, he’s still able to return his sense of humor.

“He said a lot of sweet and cute things during this now that he’s coming out of all the sedation,” she said. “He’s an active regular little 12-year-old, he’s just been compensating for years and years.”

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