Amy Hopfensperger was moving quickly in April 2022, taking the stairs to where she was needed on another floor at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah. The hospitalist, who has been with ThedaCare for more than two decades, was surprised when her smart watch alerted her that something was wrong – even before she began to feel anything out of the ordinary.
“I started to feel very dizzy and my heart began to race,” she recalled. “I was shocked. It truly came out of nowhere. And that is when everything changed.”
Hopfensperger, 42, went to see a provider after that initial incident. She received a blood transfusion and an iron infusion. About a week later, she knew something was still not quite right. She experienced severe swelling, shortness of breath and more. After numerous tests and procedures, Hopfensperger finally had an answer: advanced cirrhosis.
“Being a provider, I kind of already knew what was happening,” she recalled. “I was experiencing liver failure. Basically, my liver was dying.”
Hopfensperger would go on to experience various complications due to her liver failure, including fevers, pneumonia and more. The severity of her condition led providers to urgently get her on the liver transplant list through Froedtert Health.
“My mom was in the room with me, and I remember the doctor telling her, ‘I can save your daughter if we get a liver. But if not, she will die by the end of the year,’” she recalled. “It was incredibly surreal to hear that.”
Hopfensperger went through many tests to determine if she was a good candidate for a transplant. Finally, on August 31, 2022, she was added to the liver transplant list. Because the need was so urgent, she went through the same process through UW Health in Madison. She was added to their transplant list on October 13, 2022.
From there, she waited.
Throughout those months, she experienced many complications, spending weeks in the hospital.
“I had some okay days,” she said. “I think I was almost in denial of how bad it was. I didn’t think I was truly that sick on those okay days, but I was. And then it would hit me instantly.”
She said from August to December 2022, her quality of life was almost non-existent.
Hopfensperger pushed through those difficult days. With her hospital bags packed, the wait continued.
Then she got the call.
On January 6, 2023, Hopfensperger received her liver through a deceased donor to UW Health.
Hopfensperger is now doing well, and continues to recover.
“It has been a roller coaster for my “new life”, lots of ups and downs,” she said. “But it sure beats the alternative – I would not be here. It’s a small price to pay, and I would take all of these complications for life.”
Hopfensperger has months of appointments, labs, tests and more. She must also take special care of her weakened immune system. She can only walk for the next few months, which is difficult for someone who was always on-the-go.
“These are small things that I can get through,” she said. “I just need to find my new normal. I need to take care of this precious gift someone has given me, and that is what I will do.”
One day, Hopfensperger said she would like to thank the family of the donor who gave her the gift of life. There is a firm process that must be followed in order for a meeting to take place, and she understands it will take some time.
She explained her career in health care provided a unique outlook for her situation.
“Often in my career, I had been on the other side,” she said. “I would be there to help patients if they were experiencing a serious health situation. I always told them to live how they wanted to – experiencing life on their terms. I never thought I’d be on the other side and need to do the same, and I’m grateful I had that knowledge.”
A Significant Need
According to national organ donation statistics, there more than 104,000 men, women, and children on the national transplant waiting list, including more than 2,000 people from Wisconsin.
The organ donation process is unique for each person.
Some organs and tissues can be donated while a person is alive. Those are living donations. Most living donations happen between family members or close friends. Other people choose to donate to someone they don’t know.
Donation after life is when a person passes away and gives an organ – or part of an organ – to someone in need.
The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network maintains the national database of information about people on the waiting list and transplant surgeries. The system creates a list of patients who match the donor (by organ) and then offers each available organ to the transplant team of the best-matched patient.
The transplant surgeon makes the final decision. They decide whether the organ is good for their patient. Most organs go to patients in the area, but some organs may go to patients in other parts of the country. Surgical teams work to transplant the new organs into the waiting patient.
Lifted Up by Her “Village”
Hopfensperger said that during her difficult days, those who cared about her offered the support she needed.
Friends and co-workers have created online care sites, and fundraisers including t-shirt sales, to help Hopfensperger during her extended illness. She said it is amazing to feel the support from what she calls her “village”.
“Team members from so many areas – providers, environmental services, dining – have reached out to see how I’m doing or how they can help,” she said.
The comments and well wishes they’ve sent have touched her.
“The messages they’ve sent me have gotten me through the difficult days,” she said. “My spirits are lifted and it helps me go on.”
As for what is next, Hopfensperger is taking it one day at a time.
“I don’t know what will happen in the future or with my career,” she said. “I know I would like to continue helping others in health care.”
She offers advice for others who might face serious health situations.
“A positive attitude has helped me get through this,” she said. “I would tell others that it is okay to feel bad, but don’t let those days drag you down. Stay strong and you will get through whatever it is that you are facing.”
For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts about a patient’s care. ThedaCare is proud to partner with Children’s Wisconsin and Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin health network to enhance convenient access to the most advanced levels of specialty care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.
For more information, visit thedacare.org or follow ThedaCare on social media. Members of the media should call Cassandra Wallace, Public and Media Relations Consultant at 920.442.0328 or the ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah switchboard at 920.729.3100 and ask for the marketing person on call.