November 18, 2013 6:05 PM
NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — A major development in liver transplantation could make more livers available, and provide a much easier way for living donors to give the gift of life.
As CBS 2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported Monday, there are slightly over 6,000 liver transplants conducted each year in the U.S. But more than twice that many patients are on the waiting list.
The result is that thousands of patients a year either die or become too sick as they wait for a liver.
Living donors solve that problem, but must undergo a major operation to do so. But a new method of surgery has made it much easier.
Gail Renner and Kevin McCullough love to travel the world and call it their hobby. They have been together for seven years, but the last few months, by far, were the most eventful.
“I was feeling really tired,” Renner said. “I would walk to work, and I’d feel like I had no energy. I was just struggling to walk, and then my stomach started to, like, swelling.”
Renner knew she had a type of autoimmune disease where her immune system was attacking her liver. It had suddenly progressed to the point where her only option was a liver transplant.
“To get a liver, you basically have to be really sick to be on the top of the list,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been on the top of the list.”
What Renner really needed was a living donor, and that was where McCullough came in. They just so happen to have the same blood type.
“I came over to the liver transplant center and started at least getting my blood type, and then started the process,” he said, “and I never for a second considered not doing so.”
But donating a part of one’s liver involves an incision almost as severe as the ones Renner had for her transplant. Further, more than a third of living donors have complications.
The risk involves “injury or trauma to the abdominal wall — to the muscles of the abdominal wall – that could cause pain; that could cause a hernia; that could cause a bowel obstruction later,” said Dr. Ben Samstein of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Samstein and his colleagues retrieve a part of McCullough’s liver laparoscopically. He ended up with a scar slightly larger than Renner’s and is not visible, where the liver actually came out.
“We’re seeing less pain. We’re seeing faster recovery, and so far, we’re seeing less hernia; less bowel problems,” Samstein said.
McCullough was in the hospital just three days, but it took him a couple of months to get back to speed with his cycling club.
It also took a Renner couple of months to start feeling normal. But how does the unmarried couple say thanks to each other?
“I can never get mad at him again,” Renner said. “I’ll never win a fight. We’re a team, so, you know, we’re in this together.”
“I don’t want her, even if she was thinking about it, acting any differently, just because I don’t see it that way,” McCullough said.
The hope is that laparoscopic donation will make it more likely that living donors will come forward so they can be back to work in just three to six weeks.
And since the liver regenerates itself, in a few more months, McCullough’s liver will be back to full size and the donated piece in Renner will also grow.