Transplant patient on his caregivers: ‘I think about them all the time’

October 10, 2016  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

Last summer, Nelson Thulin was out kayaking on a beautiful sunny afternoon in northern Michigan, staying active and enjoying nature.

In a matter of days, the 52-year-old funeral director’s life would be turned upside down. After feeling what he thought was simply a muscle cramp that wouldn’t subside, Nelson went to see his doctor. The general physician was unable to form a diagnosis and referred him to a specialist. A few months later, Nelson was at UMHS, diagnosed with a genetic disorder that often leads to liver disease.

When the symptoms worsened and Nelson’s liver started failing, he was added to the transplant list.

Nelson’s journey to get a new liver had its ups and its downs. But Nelson makes one thing clear: The support he received from every single team member at UMHS was critical to his recovery.

“I close my eyes and I still see everyone’s faces. The doctors, the nurses, the patient transport people, everybody,” Nelson said. “I think about them all the time and think about the impact they had.”

Art at the heart of healing

Between December 2015 and late March 2016, Nelson was admitted to University Hospital four times to treat symptoms of his disease, which included elevated liver enzymes, swelling of the abdomen and legs and a yellowing of his skin.

Each time, he was greeted by a friendly face. Once settled into his hospital room, Nelson was made even more comfortable.

“The volunteers with the art cart came around with a book, they let me pick out some pictures I wanted on the walls of my room,” Nelson said.  “I can still tell you about the pictures in the room that resonated with me, that made me feel good.”

The art cart is a program created by Gifts of Art. “The choice of artwork is just one way we try and give patients a sense of control at a time when so much is out of their control,” said Elaine Sims, director of Gifts of Art.

Nelson felt so good about one painting that he took a picture of it and sent it to his sister. “I asked her if she was jealous that the painting wasn’t hanging up in her room,” Nelson said with a chuckle.

Building relationships

Nelson is a self-described extrovert. “I’m a Chatty Kathy,” he said. “And besides my wife being here, I was sitting in the hospital starved for interaction with people.”

Nelson became friendly with “the lady on the other end of the line at nutrition services who always remembered my voice and never made me repeat information about food allergies.”

He also enjoyed engaging with Environmental Services team members.

“I remember one man who came in to clean my room and get things squared away,” Nelson said. “And as he was cleaning, he would chat with me. He would make me feel important. At those times, these are the people in your life.”

Transplant day

In the early morning hours of Easter Sunday, Nelson was asleep at home when he received the call he had been waiting for. UMHS had found a match for a new liver.

“The woman who called to tell me they had a new liver was giddy for me. She was so excited,” Nelson recalled. “There were people waiting at the door to help me into the hospital. This was at 3:02 a.m. on Easter Sunday. But they were so happy.”

He was prepped for surgery and taken to the operating room. “Everyone from anesthesia gathered around my bed, they went around and they introduced themselves one-by-one,” Nelson said. “They weren’t treating me like a patient, but like a person. And that’s profound when you’re the guy laying there not sure if you’re going to wake up again.”


Nelson Thulin, left, with his brother Lindsley, as the pair preps to go kayaking on Lake Superior.

The surgery was a success. By midnight, Nelson was breathing on his own. He was released five days later and hasn’t been readmitted to UH since. Less than six months after his transplant, Nelson was back out on the water, this time boating with his brother.

“When I think about the magnitude of what everyone did for me — from the chief of transplant surgery to the pilots of Survival Flight who picked up my liver — so many people worked together to give me a second life,” Nelson said. “And everyone did this on Easter Sunday. I know it’s their job, but everyone did it with a smile on their face. And that helped me put a smile on my face.”