fb-pixel Skip to main content

A father gave him life and a son returns the favor

‘You can’t make a father any happier. Or prouder. You see what you’ve sown.’

Mark S. Joyce, 61, and his 32-year-old son Mark, after the liver transplant surgery at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.Family photo

As his sickness progressed, Mark S. Joyce grew weaker and weaker.

And his internal medical alarm bells seemed to grow increasingly louder.

He was tired. He was frightened. His body was failing him.

He could see it. And he could feel it.

“My liver was slowing down and shutting down and I couldn’t do anything,” Joyce, 61, said. “I was scared. But I’ve got a great family.”

There is love in that family. And something else: a critical lifeline. A medical miracle. Nothing less than a second chance at life.

“I’d do anything for family,” his oldest son, 32-year-old Mark C. Joyce, told me. “You’d do anything for your dad.”

Advertisement



And so that’s precisely what young Mark Joyce decided to do a couple months ago. He gave a part of his body to help save the man who had given him life.

But first, of course, there were questions. Questions about mortality. And about medical miracles. And about the regenerative power of the human body.

“A million different things were going through my mind,” the younger Mark Joyce told me the other day as we sat on Boston’s sparkling waterfront. “Is my father going to be all right? Am I going to be all right? How am I going to do?

“Is my body going to regenerate? How’s the recovery going to be?”

All those questions would be answered in good time.

And all of them stem from his father’s frightening medical journey, a life journey that began after a mountainside accident in the winter of 1978.

He was skiing in the Berkshires and crashed in the woods at breakneck speed in the days just after the historic blizzard that February.

“I had blood transfusions,” he said, noting that doctors now believe those transfusions introduced the disease into his body.

Advertisement



“I was in the hospital for 99 days,” he said. “I broke my back. I couldn’t walk. I had a ruptured gallbladder that almost killed me.”

He was just a teenager then, worried about being able to walk again.

But he did walk. He got married, bought a small house in Wellesley, and eventually moved with his wife, Trish, to Needham, working as a financial consultant and a broker.

And then a routine medical exam spotted something concerning. And a life-changing moment played itself out.

“I’m sitting there at Mass. General and sure enough they come walking in and the doctor says, ‘Listen, we had to deal with some blood issues.’ And back then, Hep C was brand new. And I said, ‘OK. How is it transmitted? Is my wife going to get it?’

“And they said, ‘No, she’s not going to get it.’ So, I had to go home and tell her. That’s what I really remember. Sitting on the stairs. And I had to tell her that I have a blood issue. And they didn’t tell me how bad it was going to be, or how good it was going to be.”

What followed were urgent medical consultations. There were drug trials underway. “And they literally cured it, but the problem with me was that they cured it but the damage had already been done,” he said.

Damage that was confirmed in mid-July last year.

“The news wasn’t good,” he said. “It pretty much destroyed my liver. They gave me one to three years to get a liver transplant.”

Advertisement



His son remembers that diagnosis. “It was hard,” he said. “But at the same time, we have the best doctors. So, what’s the best avenue to take? There’s no other place to be sick than in Boston.”

Or, as it turns out, Pittsburgh.

That’s where Dr. Abhinav Humar works. He’s chief of the division of transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where he oversees one of the world’s most active transplant programs.

“You have a lot of redundancy with your liver so you don’t need 100 percent of it,” Humar told me. “You only need a fraction of it. The liver is one of the few organs that we have that will actually regenerate.

“The portion that’s left behind, within two to three months has grown to full size. And that happens to the person who gets the liver and those who donate the liver.”

He said only about 5 percent of livers in the United States come from living donors. At UPMC, which does 130 liver transplants a year, that number is 60 percent.

“There are about 13,000 people waiting for a liver transplant in the US and we do about 8,500 liver transplants a year,” Humar said. “There are not enough livers for people who need them. People have to be on the waiting list from a few months to a few years.”

The elder Mark Joyce was one of the lucky ones.

“We got our blood tests and we found out that myself and my youngest brother, Brendan, were a match,” the younger Mark Joyce said. “And so then I just said, ‘I’ll do it.’ Then I flew out to UPMC.”

Advertisement



And, with that, two lives were transformed. And, if possible, a bond between father and son grew even stronger.

“Every single story is unique and equally powerful,” Humar told me. “What’s essentially on display is the very best of our human characteristics. Your ability to put someone else’s needs in front of your own. What could be a more selfless act than that?

“It brings out the best in you to consider doing something like this. Every day we see the very best of what people can be. Stories filled with courage. And stories of selfless acts. It’s very gratifying in that way.”

Gratifying. That’s one word for it.

Mark Joyce has others.

Love. Kindness. Selflessness. Everlasting gratefulness.

“For me, it all started when I was 16,” Mark Joyce said, as his son sat next to him. “That’s when I had my first operation on my back. I became very religious in a way. I prayed. I prayed. I prayed.”

He paused and then added, nodding toward his son:

“I’m just taken aback with the amount of courage that he had to do it. You can’t make a father any happier. Or prouder. You see what you’ve sown. And that has happened with my family. We’re very close. And now we’re seeing it with the next generation.’’

Advertisement



And then the son looked over at his father and flashed a smile — wide and bright — that carried no price tag.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.