‘I don’t have a Nobel Prize, but that’s OK. I have Kathy and so many other patients.’
Thirty years after her liver transplant, Kathy Fiandaca and Daniel Ganger, MD, reflect on their longtime patient-physician relationship
When Kathy Fiandaca and Daniel Ganger, MD, met nearly 35 years ago, she was a single mom who had been told her liver would fail by the time she was 30. He was a young transplant hepatologist who looked her in the eye as she shared her worst fear, that her baby girl would grow up without a mother. From the start, Dr. Ganger listened to his patient, but there was no arguing with him when it came to her future. She’d get a new liver, she’d be healthy, and she’d watch her daughter grow into adulthood.
The path to getting a new liver was rough. Today, at 58, Fiandaca still remembers the worst moments before she received her transplant, when autoimmune hepatitis and primary biliary cirrhosis had ravaged her liver. The surgeries, the medications, the times when she was too weak to care for her child. But more than anything, she remembers Dr. Ganger looking her in the eye and pushing her to go on.
“He just took me under his wing, and if it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't have fought as hard as I did,” Fiandaca, a Midlothian, Ill. resident, said. “He made me feel like life was worth living. He was also concerned about my daughter, since I was a single parent. Six weeks later, I got the call that they had a liver for me.”
More than 30 years after that, Dr. Ganger continues to provide Fiandaca’s transplant hepatology care. There is an ease in their relationship, a familiarity that has grown through decades of their patient-physician partnership. Dr. Ganger says he doesn’t want praise for doing his job, but patients like Fiandaca are why he’s still a full-time transplant hepatologist at 71 years old.
He says I know my body, so if I say something is wrong, he knows it’s wrong. I trust him with my life. I know if I got into any situation, he’d be there to get me through it. I couldn’t have done it without him. He is the best.
“A lot of people say, ‘I owe you my life, but of course not.’” Dr. Ganger said. “They owe their lives to a team of people who work with them, and they owe themselves because they've done the right things since they received their transplants.”
Through the years, Fiandaca often had a companion at her appointments with Dr. Ganger – her daughter, Ashley Barretto. She was just eight years old when her mom received the transplanted liver.
“I think it was a 13-hour surgery,” Barretto said. “We were constantly getting updates, and I remember the nurse who was there for us so many days in a row. They acted as though we were their family, and the nurses were showing me things and answering questions so we didn’t feel afraid to bring her home. My grandma and I learned how to be sterile, and we had to help with mom’s wound care at home. We made such great connections with the nursing staff and the physicians that when I grew up, I wanted to give back.”
Now, at 38, Barretto is a nurse at the Northwestern Medicine Cancer Center in Warrenville, something that makes Fiandaca and Ganger equally proud. She said she models her conversations with patients after the interaction she’s seen between her mom and Dr. Ganger.
“There are so many physicians with great bedside manner, but he’s more than that,” Barretto said. “He takes the time, and he gets to know you as the whole individual. It’s such a banter between Dr. Ganger and my mom, he makes her feel so comfortable. It literally brings me joy because I know she’s in such great hands. He doesn’t give her grief. He just tells her how it is.”
In the 30-plus years since her liver transplant, Fiandaca has never had to be hospitalized for liver-related issues. She and Dr. Ganger have worked together to manage her health through life changes and through a scary experience with COVID-19.
I don’t have a Nobel Prize, but that’s OK. I have Kathy and so many other patients. These have been relationships that have fueled a healer’s dream.
“He trusts me like I trust him,” Fiandaca said. “He says I know my body, so if I say something is wrong, he knows it’s wrong. I trust him with my life. I know if I got into any situation, he’d be there to get me through it. I couldn’t have done it without him. He is the best.”
Dr. Ganger said patients like Fiandaca have benefited from the transition from protocol-based care to precision medicine, which focuses on individualized care. He is excited about latest developments in transplant care that will help patients live better with fewer medications.
“I love those meetings with longtime patients, and I love seeing Kathy well,” Dr. Ganger said. “She’s the story of how people can live with a liver transplant for a long time.”
As he looks back on his more than 40-year career as a transplant hepatologist, Dr. Ganger remembers the personal details that patients have shared with him through the years. He continues to love the science of medicine and measures his success in the memories his patients can make as a result of their care at Northwestern Medicine.
“I don’t have a Nobel Prize, but that’s OK. I have Kathy and so many other patients. These have been relationships that have fueled a healer’s dream.”