Brecksville man receives gift of life from nephew

by Emily Canning-Dean

A little more than two years ago, Brecksville resident Tom Hartman was preparing to get his affairs in order.

With a diagnosis of Stage 4 liver disease, a liver transplant was his only chance of recovery and the chance of finding a donor was looking slim.

Little did he know that his nephew, Paul Kuzmins, was preparing to become a live donor and would be determined a good match.

Now, nearly two years after the transplant, Hartman, a picture of good health, stands in Kuzmins’ kitchen chatting and joking with Kuzmins’ wife and children.

“I think we were all sitting around in this very kitchen when we learned that he needed a liver transplant,” Kuzmins said. “It was strange because probably just a week before, I was listening to a podcast about altruism and there was this rabbi from New York who had been a living donor and it had really resonated with me.”

Later on, Kuzmins talked with his wife, Melanie, to see what she thought about him becoming a donor and Melanie was supportive of the idea.

“This was probably spring of 2021 and we kind of put it on the back burner to see if he was able to get a liver from a deceased donor,” Kuzmins said.

By summer Kuzmins began filling out the application to be a donor and by fall, after rigorous testing, medical professionals determined Kuzmins was a match.

“For those who need something like I did, we need to have people like Paul,” Hartman said, adding that he is forever grateful to Kuzmins.

Hartman said he was diagnosed with liver disease back in 2018 and by 2020, he rapidly began losing weight and experiencing significant health problems. His doctor explained a transplant would be necessary and introduced him to an agency called United Network of Organ Sharing.

“They look at a bunch of different factors then come up with a score so you can get on a waiting list,” he said. “The higher the number, the better chance you had of getting ahead on the list. At the time, people getting on the list needed to have a score of 19 to 28 and I never had a score higher than 10.”

When the doctor suggested Hartman might have a better chance with a live donor, many of his loved ones jumped into action. Hartman’s wife made a post on Facebook and other relatives shared his story with as many people as possible. Hartman’s connections to local fire departments – he was the fire chief in Pepper Pike for 14 years – also helped as local departments assisted in spreading the word.

While a number of people volunteered to be donors, finding a match proved to be difficult. One of Hartman’s nieces volunteered, however, after 10 weeks of testing, it was revealed she wasn’t a match.

But even though Kuzmins and Hartman aren’t blood related, testing showed Kuzmins to be a good match so on Feb. 28, 2022, the transplant took place at the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus.

“One of the nice things about the Cleveland Clinic program is they are able to take the liver laparoscopically so it was a fairly quick recovery,” Kuzmins said. “The liver regenerates to its normal size within six weeks and is back to normal functioning after a year.”

Kuzmins said surgeons took 36 percent of his liver which filled up roughly 45 percent of Hartman’s liver cavity after his own liver was removed.

“At times I don’t even remember I had the surgery,” he said. “It was such a minor inconvenience when you think about it. And we have had Uncle TJ for the last two Christmases so there is no question it was worth it.”

Hartman said he will be on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life and undergoes regular tests to keep track of his health, but adds his quality of life is excellent.

Both Hartman and Kuzmins encourage others to become live donors. They said anyone considering becoming a live donor can check out the Cleveland Clinic’s living donor website.

“In Ohio, if you work for the state, you get paid leave if you are a living donor,” Kuzmins said. “I think other employers should consider offering that for their employees. It’s a small thing they can do to help their employee save the life of a loved one.”

Paul Kuzmins and his wife Melanie prepare to leave the Cleveland Clinic after Kuzmins gave part of his liver to Tom Hartman. Photo submitted.

Photo (above / main): Paul Kuzmins didn’t hesitate to volunteer when his uncle, Tom Hartman, needed a new liver. Photo submitted.