Suzanne Bourgault of Portland donated part of her liver in December to save the life of her friend’s husband. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

What began as a casual conversation between two field hockey friends two years ago became a life-saving event for a man in need of a liver transplant.

Eric Holman says the liver transplant he received in December saved his life. “I might have had a couple of years left but they would not have been quality.”

Suzanne Bourgault, a Portland resident who is a member of the U.S. over-45 Masters national team, donated a portion of her liver to Eric Holman, whose wife, Hayly, plays in adult leagues with Bourgault.

Both have fully recovered from the operation last December. Holman is able to give baths to his 4-year-old son, Ross, and Bourgault is once again playing the game she loves. It can take six months or longer to fully recover from a liver transplant, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Bourgault, 45, downplays her role in the event. Her family, she says, has a history of both organ and blood donations. “To me it really didn’t seem that big a deal,” she said.

But Eric Holman knows otherwise.

“Oh, it saved my life,” he said.

According to the American Liver Foundation, about 8,000 liver transplants are conducted each year. But there are about 17,000 people on a liver waiting list in the U.S. alone, according to the University of California at San Francisco.

Dr. Yee Lee Cheah, the director of the living donor transplant program at the Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Burlington, Massachusetts, said 20 percent of people on the waiting list will never see a new liver. “They will either die or become too sick to get a transplant,” said Cheah, who performed the surgery on Bourgault.

According to Cheah, doctors at Lahey perform between 80 and 100 liver transplants a year, with 10-15 coming from living donors. The rest are supplied by deceased individuals.

Those that receive livers from living donors tend to have a better survival rate, said Cheah. “Our success rate for one year with living donors is 100 percent,” she said.

The liver is the largest organ in the human body, weighing about three pounds. It processes nutrients, removes bacteria and toxins from the blood, regulates immune responses and produces bile, which helps the body absorb fats and cholesterol.

Holman suffered from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that causes inflammation and scars in the bile ducts of the liver. It causes the bile ducts to become hard and narrow. A transplant is the only cure.

Holman, who is 33 and lives in Minot, was diagnosed with the disease when he was 18. By 2016, it had worsened and he had his gallbladder removed. “When the gallbladder came out, my surgeon said to me, ‘You’ve heard of liver transplants, right? You’re going to need one,'” said Holman.

Holman knew that. And after suffering internal bleeding on two separate occasions, he also knew that time was coming fast.

“There’s a 33 percent risk of death after internal bleed,” said Holman. “Now, was I the sickest person to walk through the transplant center that year? No. But I would not have made a full course of life. I might have had a couple of years left but they would not have been quality.”

FIELD HOCKEY A LIFELONG PASSION

Field hockey is the bond that drew Bourgault and Holman together.

Bourgault, known as Suz to her friends, grew up in Brewer. Then known as Suzanne Parks, she loved basketball and used the fall – specifically cross country – to get in shape for it. But before her junior year, a friend asked her to try out for the field hockey team.

“I thought it was just really fun,” said Bourgault, who graduated from Brewer in 1997. Now, she said, “It’s my passion. If I could play it every day I would.”

Hayly (Ross) Holman, left, starred at Greely High and went on to captain the field hockey team at Boston University. John Patriquin/2001 staff file photo

Hayly Holman, meanwhile, was a star player at Greely High, then known as Hayly Ross. She graduated from Greely in 2004.

Bourgault would go to Bentley University and walk onto the field hockey team. In 50 career games, Bourgault scored 20 goals and three assists. The Falcons won their first Northeast-10 Conference championship her senior year. Hayly Holman would play at Boston University, where she was a team captain her senior year.

The two would return to Maine after college to begin their new careers: Bourgault as a financial adviser for Ameriprise (she also owns several apartment buildings in Portland); Holman as teacher – she is now an Oxford Hills middle school Spanish teacher.

Suzanne (Parks) Bourgault as a senior field hockey player at Brewer High School in 1992. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Bourgault

And field hockey remained in their lives. Bourgault was an assistant coach at Thornton Academy in Saco, Deering High in Portland and the University of New England. She became involved with the Katahdin travel team and would start her own field hockey camp in Portland, called HockeyPalooza. And Holman, who was an assistant at Bates for two years, joined her there as a coach.

Both were playing in adult leagues in Portland and Gorham when they met. Over the years, Bourgault met Eric Holman three or four times and knew of his health issues.

Two years ago, just before Thanksgiving, they were talking between games. Hayly Holman mentioned that Eric was in need of a transplant and that they had found a possible donor. Bourgault suggested that if that didn’t work, she would be interested in being a donor.

“The first donor was not a match,” said Hayly Holman. “So I said to Suz, ‘I know this was what you said, and maybe it wasn’t under official circumstances, but if you’re serious about being a donor, now is the time to tell me.’ She didn’t skip a beat.”

Bourgault began the process to determine if she was a match for Eric Holman. They shared the same blood type (A positive) but that was just the start. “We have to make sure she’s fit to have major surgery. She went through one of the most detailed physicals of her life,” said Dr. Cheah. “We look at every organ function, we rule out any diseases that could hurt organ function, we look at the liver structure to make sure it’s suitable to be split in half to have a lobe work for recipient and lobe that works for her.”

She was a perfect match.

‘IT SEEMED LIKE A NO-BRAINER TO ME’

On Dec. 2, 2019, the morning after a snowstorm, the surgery took place.

Cheah used robotic surgery – which is less invasive to the donor – to remove 65 percent of Bourgault’s liver – the right lobe. That was placed in Eric Holman’s body by Dr. Caroline Simon. The surgery took about seven hours. The doctors operate in separate rooms and are in constant communication.

“We try to time it so that when Dr. Cheah is ready to take that half liver out and it’s flushed and put on ice, we’re just about ready to take the diseased liver out,” said Simon, who is the transplant fellowship program director at Lahey. “Once the half liver is in our recipient room, we’re ready to go back to the table for reconstruction if we need to rebuild any blood vessels.”

Suzanne Bourgault, second from left, and Eric Holman, second from right, return to the Lahey Hospital for a follow-up to his liver transplant, joined by Dr. Yee Lee Cheah, left, and Dr. Caroline Simon, right. Cheah removed 65 percent of Bourgault’s liver and Simon placed it in Holman’s body. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Bourgault

The liver regenerates, making a big growth spurt in the first two or three months after the transplant. Within a year, it is nearly back to its original size. According to Cheah, the liver functions “generally normalize in a week or two.”

The recovery takes a little longer as the patients need to rest, eat a specific diet and rest some more. Bourgault said she slept a lot in the first month and that the pain wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be – even less, she said, than when she had knee surgery.

Hayly Holman said she spoke to Bourgault’s husband, Joe, while the two were still in the hospital and that the “first few days of recovery were pretty rough” for both. But, Bourgault said, once she went home, “the recovery is basically waiting and eating right, and taking little walks and eventually you’re back to normal.”

Two months after the surgery, Bourgault returned to playing field hockey until the coronavirus pandemic hit, shutting it down.

“It was probably good that I took that break,” said Bourgault. “Because I probably shouldn’t have been playing to begin with.”

Cheah wasn’t surprised that Bourgault resumed playing so quickly. “Even before she left the hospital, Suzanne asked me, ‘When can I resume playing hockey?’ ” she said.

Eric Holman is now back at his job as a part-time teacher with the Oxford Hills adult education program. He knows how lucky he was that Bourgault was willing to be a living donor for him.

“I think there’s a decent chance I’d kicking around today,” he said. “But I would not be working or caring for family. I would be a professional patient.”

Simon said Holman is doing quite well in his recovery.

“Everyone on the recipient side has minor bumps in the road to recovery,” she said. “But he’s living a full and healthy life. Every few weeks we get an update from him, what he’s doing with his family and son.”

Both doctors, and Holman, said the living donor program is vital to those people on the waiting list.

“In the New England area there are a lot of people on waiting lists and not enough deceased donors,” said Dr. Cheah. “Living donation is a very feasible way to help people on the waiting list. It is a lifesaving procedure.”

Added Simon: “Eric is a huge advocate for living donations. I think when you have a life experience like him and go through something thing like this, it changes you for the better. He was a phenomenal patient. Now he’s more like a friend.”

Bourgault said it was easy to make the decision to become a living donor.

“What I gave him I didn’t lose and what it cost me was a couple of months of inconvenience,” she said. “If I’m able to take someone off a transplant list, and I’m able to save a life, for a couple of months of inconvenience, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. And they’re the type of people who you want to do it for.

“They’re wonderful people. I feel lucky I was able to do it.”

And Hayly Holman, who is an assistant coach for Oxford Hills High field hockey program, feels lucky to know Bourgault through the sport she loves.

“One of the things I tell my athletes is that there are so many good things that come from this sport,” she said. “Whether you play collegiately or just intramurally, you could meet some of the most important people in your life.

“My little family of three is still together because I met Suzanne. That’s amazing.”


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