Moves in Medicine: New attitudes toward alcohol-related liver disease

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Attitudes are changing in the medical world toward one disease tied to alcohol abuse, and it may help more people get a second chance at life.

Don Slowicki drank heavily for many years. He didn't realize the damage it left until a neighbor noticed Slowicki's skin was yellow, a sign of jaundice.

Within no time, he learned from doctors at Temple University Hospital that his liver was failing.

"The only treatment at that time would have been the liver transplant. There were no other options," he said.

For many years, liver transplant programs required six months without any alcohol before even being evaluated for a transplant.

"Some patients don't have that much time left," said psychologist Chris Combs, Ph.D.

Combs also said there's no scientific evidence that six months of abstinence predicts alcohol use after a transplant. So Temple takes it case-by-case, based on a patient's motivation to stop using alcohol and to address the underlying problems behind their alcohol abuse.

"We try to get a commitment from them that they will go into some kind of alcohol treatment at the first available opportunity, whether it's before transplant, or more likely, after they get their transplant and go home," said Combs. "Many of these patients have been traumatized or abused earlier in life. And it's often the case that alcohol is used to try to numb out that kind of experience."

Transplant surgeon Dr. Antonio Di Carlo said the psychological support helps ensure the best chance of physical and emotional success.

Slowicki is in recovery, grateful for his new lease on life.

"I realistically felt that I was 30 years younger," he said.

"It is disheartening how many patients would have lost their lives waiting for this magical six-month number that meant nothing," said Dr. Di Carlo.

The Temple team said it's time to break the stigma that alcohol-related liver disease is a character flaw. Doctors know genetics can be a factor, and some people are more sensitive to alcohol.
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