Few people would be willing to undergo a five-hour surgery with a six-week home recovery for a complete stranger.
But in December 2018, a transplant team at Keck Hospital of USC took part of 57-year-old Damian Delaney’s liver and gave it to 29-year-old Breana Shaw, who had end-stage liver disease.
In March, Delaney met Shaw — the woman whose life he saved — for the first time. They were generous enough to share this moment on video to encourage more living-donor organ donations, especially during April, which is National Donate Life Month.
Delaney, a high school teacher and marathon runner, had initially gone through the screening process to donate to a friend. When his friend’s condition improved, he offered to give part of his liver to a stranger in need.
“When you do a loving act, the act itself is its own reward,” says Delaney. “Anything worthwhile in life is difficult. So no, it’s not an easy thing to step forward and donate, but the level of satisfaction you get is life-changing.”
Shaw, who was on the national organ registry wait list for three years, found even routine tasks like grocery shopping exhausting.
“I’m eternally grateful,” Shaw says. “I’m excited just to get back out into the world. I want to try new things. I want to say yes to everything.”
Whether it’s a friend, relative or like Delaney, an altruistic person willing to donate to a stranger, being matched with a living donor means a patient can have a transplant before they develop liver disease complications that may be fatal.
“Every year, hundreds of people die waiting for an organ,” says Yuri Genyk, MD, director of the liver transplant program at Keck Hospital, and Delaney’s surgeon. “Living donors are the only way we can narrow the gap between the need and availability of organs.”
Shaw is a typical example. She was at the stage where she needed a liver transplant, but she was not sick enough to receive one from the national organ registry of deceased donors.
“Without a living donor, she would have had to wait for the progression of the disease, with multiple hospitalizations and complications,” Genyk says. “She would be at high risk for developing fatal complications and not surviving on the wait list.”
How the Transplant Works
At Keck Hospital, donor and recipient surgical teams work simultaneously in side-by-side operating rooms to remove a portion of the healthy liver from the donor and immediately transplant it into the person in need. The donor surgery takes four to five hours; the recipient surgery takes about nine to 10 hours to remove the diseased liver, transplant the donated one and then connect all of the various blood vessels and bile ducts.
“Donors completely recover after the operation,” Genyk says. “They eventually return to their studies, occupation, hobbies and physical activities.”
And they’ve given the recipient another chance at life.
Keck Medicine of USC is one of the few institutions in the nation that does living-donor liver transplants. Both donor and patient are assigned an entire team, not just for the surgery, but for the entire journey, from screening through long-term recovery.
“Many people aren’t aware that the liver regenerates,” says Navpreet Kaur, MD, the transplant surgeon who performed Breana’s operation. “Within two months, the liver will grow to almost its full size and potential in both the donor and recipient, and will be completely grown within a year. ”
Becoming a Donor
Most people receive an organ from a family member or friend, but anyone could be a match. The screening process starts with a simple blood test.
In the case of Delaney, through his friend’s experience, he realized there were many more people experiencing liver disease. “They have a disease that’s out of their control. Their life is dependent on someone coming forward. If I were in that situation, I’d hope that someone would do that for me.”
He says that it’s made him appreciate the gift of health. Before this operation, he had never spent the night in a hospital. And yet, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I could,” Delaney says. “What greater gift is there in life than to do something to benefit someone else, whether it’s a family member or a stranger?”
For more information on the liver and liver transplant, visit Donate Life.
More Living Donors Needed
Every year, hundreds of people die waiting for an organ transplant. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN):
- Nearly 114,000 people are on the national organ transplant wait list. Of those, more than 13,000 are on the wait list for a liver.
- In 2018, nearly 5% of liver transplants were made possible thanks to living donors who stepped forward to save lives.
Assessing the Need
To assess a patient’s need for a transplant, patients are assigned a MELD (Model of End-Stage Liver Disease) score from 6 to 40. At MELD 40, you have a 90% of chance of dying within three months.
In some parts of the country, people can receive a deceased-donor liver via the national organ registry with a MELD score of 28. According to the National Liver Review Board, in Southern California it’s 35.
Living donors can change this equation.