A little over a year ago, Eric Dunham had the operation that saved his life: a double transplant to give him a new liver and a new kidney. Chronic, heavy drinking had destroyed his own organs. It also led to a condition called hepatic encephalopathy that made him feel like he was losing his mind, as well as weakened blood vessels that caused life-threatening stomach bleeding.
A priest once was called to his hospital bedside to give him last rites as his family wept. Over nearly three years, dialysis multiple times a week and blood transfusions every couple of days kept him alive long enough to get a donor match.
What to many people is a celebratory elixir or ubiquitous social lubricant, alcohol can ravage the human body. And it doesn't take decades for this powerful toxin to do its damage.
Dunham had just turned 33.
"I would have never thought it -- not ever," the Keansburg, N.J., man said. "You think you're taking the safe road with alcohol because it's not a drug. It's legal. When you're young, you don't realize what it could do to you."
As deaths from alcohol-related liver diseases like cirrhosis and cancer have skyrocketed in recent years, one of the most disturbing parts of that trend is the staggering rise in its youngest victims.
People ages 25 to 34 represent the greatest increase in deaths driven by alcohol-related liver cirrhosis -- a nearly 11% increase per year from 2009 to 2017, according to research published last year in The BMJ and updated in August.
"Every day on rounds, all of America's liver specialists are seeing multiple young people in various states of liver failure. In clinics, we experience more and more young people being referred," said liver specialist Elliot B. Tapper, an assistant professor with the University of Michigan Medical School and coauthor of the research. "We're doing more transplants than we've ever done for this reason. More and more people are dying."
Local experts are seeing this too, like Keira Chism, a psychiatrist with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital's Transplant Institute.
"It seems like we're seeing more and more young people with end-stage liver disease or severe alcoholic hepatitis with underlying cirrhosis," Chism said. "It feels shocking."