Today’s conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first pediatric living-donor liver transplant in the United States was many things: a history lesson, a technical discussion of surgical techniques, a reunion of dispersed colleagues, a media event. But most impressively, it was the rare medical conference that paid direct tribute to the reason everyone was there – the patients. Capping nearly 8 hours of presentations were brief remarks by Teri and Alyssa Smith, the mother-daughter/donor-recipient pair at the heart of that first procedure back in November 1989.
In their speeches, both Teri and Alyssa listed off things that they do that most of us would likely take for granted: dancing ballet, playing bass clarinet, going off to college, comparing clothes over a video chat. But in the context of hearing about a procedure that seems implausible even today, much less in 1989, these everyday activities were like a series of priceless gifts, given to the Smith family by medical science and the talent and care of the surgeons, pediatricians, nurses and medical ethicists 20 years ago.
Many of those personnel had made it to Chicago for today’s conference, and many of the speakers spoke lovingly of Dr. Christoph Broelsch, the lead surgeon on that first living-donor liver transplant. Broelsch was the other featured speaker of the day, but he found little to talk about after all the preceding talks had outlined the history of the procedure and how it has since spread around the world and been used to extend the lives of thousands of patients. Instead, Broelsch took the time to thank the surgical teams, here and at the two medical centers he subsequently worked at in Germany, and to talk movingly about a failed case in the early days of liver transplantation, and how difficult such failures were to face.
Also moving was Giuliano Testa, director of liver transplantation at the University of Chicago Medical Center who spoke about the importance of protecting the donors in these types of procedures. The pressure of potentially holding the key to saving a loved one’s life often puts the donor in a situation where they may not be able to make an honest decision, Testa said, reinforcing the need for independent donor advocates provided by the hospital. When all agree that donating an organ is the right decision, medically and ethically, for the donor, they should be emphatically saluted, Testa said.
“It is only through the courage of this mother [Teri Smith], and all mothers, brothers, sisters, and fathers that have gone under our knife, that not only have we saved lives, but become better doctors,” Testa said.
I took several videos of Alyssa and Teri Smith, Christoph Broelsch, and medical ethicist Mark Siegler (who was intricately involved in the 1989 case), that I will post on this site in the future. If you want to read a more detailed account of this event, my live-blog commentary remains below.
To briefly interrupt the Neuroscience 2009 flood, we’ll be running live blog commentary all day today tracking a very special event: a University of Chicago symposium celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first living-donor liver transplant in the United States. In November 1989, Teri Smith donated a piece of her liver to her 21-month-old daughter, Alyssa, in a 14-hour procedure that received international front-page attention. Today, Alyssa remains in good health, attending college in North Carolina and studying social work.
As you may have seen in your morning paper, Alyssa and her mother will be in attendance at the symposium, and will even make a short presentation at the end of the day. Other speakers will focus on how the procedure has evolved over the last two decades in terms of ethics, surgical techniques and post-surgery care.
You can view an agenda for the symposium here. And if you’d like to learn about and see video from a recent living-donor liver transplant, you can follow the story of Raquel Allen that was reported on the blog two months ago. The live blog will begin in the box below at approximately 8:00 AM central time.