Transplant recipient reunites with pioneering surgeon

October 16, 2009 2:52:18 PM PDT
Children waiting for a liver transplant don't die before they have a chance to go for surgery like they used to thanks to a pioneering procedure first performed at the University of Chicago 20 years ago next month. It was the first live-donor liver transplant, and its success captured the country's imagination. Friday, the people at the center of that drama came together for the first time. Despite their restraint, they were happy to mark history.

When meeting the family, the surgeon was excited.

"That's unbelievable! I received your announcement for your graduation and I was so excited. I wrote you back and you were the real hero you know! This is wonderful, isn't that great?" said surgeon Christoph Broelsch to the recipient, Alyssa Smith.

Broelsch was meeting with 21-year-old Alyssa Smith and her parents Teri and John, of San Antonio, Texas. Teri gave up a third of her liver in a pioneering procedure in November, 1989 that paved the way for her two-year-old to grow up normally.

"It is just what I did, it is not this miraculous thing, us, it is just what we did to try to save our daughter's life," Teri said.

Her matter-of-factness belies the medical scrutiny this family endured to be the first live-donor transplant subjects. Alyssa had Biliary Atresia, a birth defect that prevented her liver from secreting bile to the intestines, a condition doctors said would eventually kill her. Now, she's a college senior.

"I mean it is a big part of my life but it has mainly affected what I want to do instead of being part of my life," Alyssa said.

She wants to be a social worker that helps families get through the challenge of transplant surgery. She wants to show normal life is possible, a goal the surgeon could barely have dreamed about that day as he embarked on the first surgery. The surgery was only possible after years of peer-reviewed planning, and the ethics of cutting into a healthy person were a big part of the debate.

"I was nervous during the procedure because some certain things went wrong but we managed we got it through and that was a greatest reward," Broelsch said."I prayed and hoped it was going to work. You never know in that kind of field that things are going well. There is always somebody else watching and giving his blessing to this kind of procedure."

Even the relationship between mom and daughter speaks to the normalcy the family was able to achieve.

" We are still normal mother daughter, I mean that is pretty much it," Alyssa said.

"This is certainly one of the great moments of my life, you know," Broelsch said.

Since Alyssa's surgery, nearly 4,000 live-donor liver transplants have been done in the United States, and survival rates for those waiting for a new liver have improved dramatically.


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