Could a Liver Transplant Save Your Life?

The world of modern medicine has a long list of impressive treatments for a range of human maladies. One medical advance that’s especially impressive is the organ transplant.

About 6,000 liver transplants are done each year in the U.S. making it one of the most common transplants.

Your liver is a hard working internal organ that:

  • Helps prevent infections
  • Removes bacteria and toxins from your blood
  • Controls immune responses
  • Processes nutrients, medications and hormones
  • Makes proteins that help the blood clot
  • Produces bile that helps your body absorb fats – including cholesterol – and fat-soluble vitamins
  • Stores vitamins, minerals, fats and sugars your body uses

Unfortunately, sometimes the liver can fail due to an injury or disease. The most common causes of liver failure are viruses such as hepatitis, cancer or drug/alcohol-induced failures.

Signs of liver failure include:

  • Jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Muscle loss
  • Itching
  • Bruising or bleeding easily (because blood does not clot)
  • A buildup of fluid in the abdomen, bleeding in the stomach or vomiting blood
  • Passing black stools
  • Forgetfulness or confusion

If you or a loved on has liver function that deteriorates to the point where it becomes life threatening, the patient may be evaluated for a possible transplant. The transplant candidate’s overall health is an important aspect in determining if she or he is a good candidate for a transplant.

For organ transplants at Aurora Health Care, a selection committee makes the determination in consultation with the patient’s doctor. Patients who move forward with the transplant process will be registered with the United Network of Organ Sharing (UNOS).

A transplant physician and transplant nurse will work with a coordinator to ensure the patient’s health and mental well-being are maintained throughout the waiting period, which can last from a few days to a few years.

The Transplant Procedure

A team of medical professionals manages care for the patient throughout the transplant process. The team will include:

  • Transplant medical specialists — work closely with the transplant surgeons.
  • Transplant surgeons — monitor patient health before the transplant and perform the surgery.
  • Transplant nurses — coordinate care such as exams and routine tests and keep the medical records.
  • Transplant pharmacists — ensure the correct medications are administered throughout the transplant process.
  • Infectious disease specialists — watch for signs of infection and address any infections that might occur.
  • Clinical dietitians — ensure the patient gets the right food throughout the process.
  • Transplant financial coordinators — help the patient understand benefits that might be available and help the patient find funding to cover the costs.
  • Clinical and health psychologists and social workers — help the patient and their families cope with emotional issues associated with a transplant.

During the transplant surgery, the patient is anesthetized, so no pain is felt.

An incision is made in the abdomen, the failed liver is removed and the donor organ is surgically connected to the other organs and blood vessels.

After surgery, the health care team will watch for infection, rejection and side effects of medications. Physical therapy may also be part of the patient’s recovery process.

The health care team will also manage immunosuppressive medications after the surgery. These drugs help keep the patient’s body from rejecting the transplanted organ.

After what may be a few months of recovery, the patient may feel ready to return to work and other daily activities.

Transplants at Aurora Health Care

The Aurora transplant team has been performing organ transplants for more than 40 years. Liver transplants are performed at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee. If the patient lives outside the Milwaukee area, Aurora St. Luke’s collaborates with other Aurora Medical Centers to coordinate patient care before and after the transplant procedure.

Aurora performs about 40 liver transplants per year. Metrics for the quality of care throughout the transplant process and the first year after place Aurora Health Care in the top 5% nationally.

Aurora surgeon Dr. Ajay Sahajpal recently helped implement a new surgical technique for patients who need both a kidney and liver. The doctor and his team are the first in the U.S. to use a technique called en bloc. With this pioneering technique, the donated kidney and liver are stitched together in a separate procedure before the transplant. They are then implanted at the same time with a single incision in the patient’s upper abdomen.

With this approach, patients spend less time in the operating room and often recover sooner because of the single incision. The technique also allows the organs to better adapt to the patient’s body.

Other Organ Transplants

Along with liver transplants, Aurora performs transplants of the heart, kidney, pancreas and autologous stem cells that help patients recover after chemo therapy.

If you or someone you care about needs a transplant, qualified teams are available to help every step of the way.

Meet the Author

Ajay Sahajpal, MD is a board-certified transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon specializing in liver, kidney, and pancreas transplants and complex cancer surgery at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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