Pam Stubbs had felt so bad for so long that she'd forgotten what it was like to feel good. Initially chalking up bothersome symptoms to an ongoing push to expand her real estate career in Scottsdale, Arizona, Pam's health issues came to head in late 2015.
"It was around the holidays, and I just wasn't feeling well," she says. "I was really tired. But I thought it was because I was getting older, so I didn't think it was a big deal."
But when Pam also started getting short of breath, she began to worry there was something seriously wrong with her heart. She decided to see a cardiologist. "He did a scan of my heart, an ultrasound, and he said, 'Your heart is fine,'" Pam says.
There was another problem, however. "The ultrasound caught the top of my liver, and the cardiologist said, 'While your heart is fine, I do see a spot on your liver,'" she says. "He didn't know what it was exactly, so he told me to see a gastroenterologist."
That's what Pam did, and what that gastroenterologist told her is something she never saw coming. "They did another CT scan, MRI, and blood work, and they discovered my liver was cirrhotic," Pam says. "And I said: 'I don't even drink. I've never had hepatitis, so how can that be?'"
Pam's gastroenterology team went on to tell her it's likely she'd been born with an inherited disease called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, and it had been slowly destroying her liver. When she heard that, Pam began thinking back to several family members she'd lost to liver failure. Not wanting to suffer the same fate, she turned her attention toward treatment. At first, Pam thought perhaps medication would be enough. That's when her gastroenterologist delivered more unexpected news: Pam needed a liver transplant.
She was dumbfounded: "I thought: 'That's impossible. How am I going to do that?'"
Before Pam's health troubles began, one of her passions in life was riding horses. After her diagnosis, it was during a ride with a friend that Pam began to see a way forward to the transplant she needed. Her friend knew Bashar Aqel, M.D., a Mayo Clinic transplant hepatologist. The friend connected the two.
"Dr. Aqel was nice enough to talk with me, and he said, 'Here's who you need to talk to, and here's what you need to do,'" Pam says.
"They scheduled an appointment for me, and I went over there and said: 'I don't care if I'm here all day long. I want whatever tests I need done. I want to get on the transplant list as soon as possible,'" Pam says. "They got all of the testing I needed in order to qualify for a transplant done within three weeks. I was officially on the transplant list by April 15. Everything happened really quickly."
With her name added to the national transplant waiting list, Pam's next concern was to get her body ready. For help with that, she turned to her transplant surgeon, and chair of Transplant Surgery, Adyr Moss, M.D. "We hit it off right away," Pam says of Dr. Moss. "He told me as I prepared for the transplant to work out like I was training for a marathon — to get as physically fit as I possibly could."
So that's what she did, hiring a personal trainer and working out three times a week. In addition to getting her body ready for the transplant, Pam also prepared her mind by joining a support group through Mayo Clinic that connected her with other liver transplant patients.
"We met once a week, and that was also a great help to me," she says. "The support group made me feel so safe and so confident about what was to come."
Pam also credits Dr. Moss and the rest of her care team at Mayo Clinic for helping her feel good about the transplant.
"Everyone was so positive from start to finish," she says. "I wasn't worried about a thing. I knew I was going to be fine and that I was in the best hands possible because my care team never gave me a reason to feel otherwise."
"I was so confident, in fact, that when the hospital chaplain came in to my room before the transplant and asked if I wanted to talk or pray about anything, I said, 'No, I'm good,'" she says. "Thanks to the confidence and comfort my care team had instilled in me, I was ready."
Pam's confidence was well-founded. Dr. Moss successfully transplanted her new liver, and her recovery went smoothly. After that, Pam set her sights on another goal: returning to her lifelong love of competitive horseback riding.
"I couldn't wait to get back home and start looking for a new horse," she says. "I had my transplant on July 1, and I was back riding that September. I found my new horse in October."
Since then, Pam and her growing stable of horses have done quite well together. She won two world championships at the 2017 American Quarter Horse Association World Show and another three world championships, along with a reserve world championship, at the 2018 World Show.
"All of that's because I feel fantastic right now. I feel like a new person," Pam says. "I think I was so sick for such a long time that I'd forgotten what it felt like to be healthy. But all of that changed within just a few days of my transplant. I feel like an entirely new person right now. It's unbelievable."
Pam readily acknowledges that her newfound health is not only thanks to Drs. Aqel and Moss and the rest of her care team at Mayo Clinic, but also to all those who make the choice to become organ donors. "Thank God for them because they help save so many lives," she says. "It's an incredible gift they're giving to others like me."