Former Harmony resident Josh Ommen works out in a yoga class following liver transplant surgery. 
Former Harmony resident Josh Ommen works out in a yoga class following liver transplant surgery. SUBMITTED PHOTO

The word “miracle” seems to get used quite often in our society today. The Miracle on Ice referred to the U.S. Olympic Hockey team beating Russia decades ago. The Miracle on the Hudson was coined following Captain Sully’s successful crash landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 Airbus on the Hudson River. More recently, the Minnesota Miracle happened several weeks ago when Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs caught the game-winning touchdown pass in Minnesota’s play-off game over New Orleans.

For Josh Ommen, the word miracle took on a whole new meaning following a successful liver transplant last July. The son of Lu and Sue Ommen of Harmony was given a zero percent chance of living long enough for surgeons in Arizona to find a proper match for him. To say that Ommen beat the odds would be a gross understatement.

Ommen was born in an orphanage in Calcutta, India. When he was just 3 months old, Lu and Sue Ommen brought the young child into their home.

“I was very sick and wouldn’t have made it much longer over there (India),” Ommen recalled. “I don’t have any memories of India, of course, but once I’m feeling better, I hope to return to India.”     

When Ommen was 16, he became ill. The doctors told him he had a blood disease. With meds, he was able to become healthy once again.

“I got well and never gave it much thought. Every time my blood was tested, nothing showed up. So I figured it went away like my asthma,” Ommen said.

Like many young people, Ommen didn’t make frequent visits to a doctor for a checkup.

“I felt good and looked good, so why go to the doctors? I was young,” he said.

Liver disease, according to Ommen, is a quiet killer and it’s hard to recognize the signs. In November of 2016, while working in Yuma, Ariz., Ommen started experiencing chest pains. Sometimes the pain was so severe, it would drop Ommen to his knees.

“One night, while I was lying in bed, I decided I better have a check up,” Ommen noted. “They said my heart was fine, but blood tests indicated something was not quite right.”

Following a battery of tests and scans, it was discovered that Ommen had two lesions on his liver and was experiencing stage four liver disease.

“They told me I needed a liver transplant ASAP,” Ommen said. “They said because I was in good shape and young, I would be a good candidate.”

Unfortunately, while conducting lifestyle interviews, the fact that Ommen consumed a fair share of alcohol on a regular basis, made progress on securing a liver for Ommen come to a screeching halt. 

“They told me if I wanted a transplant, I would need to make a major change in my life. They told me I would have to be sober for a year before my insurance would allow the surgery,” he said. “I left the office that day and sat in my car for two hours taking all this in. I knew there was a fork in the road. I could keep on drinking and would probably be dead within a month or two. Or, I could commit to a lifetime of sobriety and see where this change might lead.”

Ommen took the latter of the two choices, but the road to a transplant still had many bumps and curves. In January of 2017, Ommen met with a nurse practitioner who prescribed a medication that was hoped to slow down the deterioration of the liver… to buy some more time. In March, tests indicated the meds weren’t working and Ommen was told he had a 30 percent chance of living past June.

“I was getting sicker and sicker. I spent 20 to 22 hours in bed each day. There was no way to rehab and the insurance wasn’t going to allow me to get on the transplant list,” he explained.

Ommen decided to fly home to see family and friends one last time. While in Minnesota, his health worsened and he ended up in the emergency room in Rochester.    

“We tried working with the transplant clinic at Mayo but again, the insurance wouldn’t allow it.  I had to make a decision to either stay in Minnesota with family and friends and try to get into Mayo, or go back to Arizona and keep trying at a plan we had already started.  

“I flew back to Arizona ready to fight the insurance, doctors, rules and anything that stood in my way to fight for my life,” Ommen continued.  

Unfortunately, his health continued to spiral downward. He made frequent trips to the emergency room, where several liters of fluid were drained from his lungs. His liver wasn’t processing anything and the toxins continued to build up in his body.

He was finally informed that the medical staff was going to start working him up for the transplant list.

One day when Ommen was home he discovered Terrance McMahon on a Mayo Clinic social media page.

“He was telling his liver transplant story. As I read it, it sounded like what I was going through. I was desperate, so I sent him a message and he responded. We talked and he said he was in the middle of writing his book but he was going to stop and help me out.  He used his recovery center and Skype to get me through the requirements for the insurance and hospital.”

Originally, Ommen thought he was on the donor list. But on June 27, he found out he wasn’t. A meeting between the hospital, insurance company and Ommen was scheduled for June 30.

“My caregiver and I came to that meeting that Friday upset, but thinking they were going to tell us what we need to do to get on the list. I was looking at another month of waiting and the doctors gave me a zero percent chance of survival.”

What Ommen learned was devastating. He was told he was not on the transplant list, and instead of preparing for the surgery, he was instructed to line up hospice and prepare for the worst.

“I figured it was over. I was preparing for death. I spent time with the pastors and I was asking them to just let me go,” he said.

Ommen’s friends and caregivers weren’t ready to give up. They contacted the staff at Banner Hospitals of Arizona and pleaded Ommen’s case. Banner Hospitals agreed to move forward the transplant protocol for Ommen. And the picture brightened.

It took another two agonizing weeks, with three livers that were not the perfect match the surgeons were looking for, before the long awaited surgery took place. Besides his liver, surgeons also removed Ommen’s gall bladder. The surgery was deemed a success and Ommen now faced the long road to recovery.

“It was very slow going at first, with the simplest things I just couldn’t do,” he said. “I lost most of my skills and muscles along with 65 pounds. I couldn’t even function enough to write!”

Ommen started out very slowly, using water bottles as weights, doing physical therapy at home. He was working on other skills. It was an accomplishment just to use his walker to walk outside and sit in the therapeutic sun for an hour.  After a couple months, Ommen was seeing major results and improvements every day.  

“I noticed, as did others, it was a whole new me, not getting back to who I was, but recreating a whole new person with a different lifestyle,” he said. “I never felt so good in my life and no longer needed that unhealthy connection with alcohol. With no gall bladder, I had to recreate my thinking and way of eating.  I started in the gym after three months, doing yoga every day. I began changing my eating habits with healthier food, knowing I had to do whatever it took to keep my body healthy. I want to live as long as I can with another person’s organ in me.”

Ommen is now working out four to six times a week, lifting weights and doing yoga. The workouts, coupled with much-improved nutritional eating habits have produced amazing results. 

He is also working with McMahon, who has started a transplant advocacy program in Florida and also one in Arizona. McMahon has encouraged Ommen to not only tell his story to others facing a similar dilemma, but to serve as a mentor to prospective transplant patients.

Ommen summed up his experience with the following verse from the Bible: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” - Philippians 4:13.