Living-Donor Liver Transplant: The True Anniversary

Six weeks ago, the surgical team responsible for the first successful living-donor transplant were reunited at the University of Chicago Medical Center with Teri and Alyssa Smith, the mother and daughter who were donor and recipient in that historic surgery 20 years ago. But the conference was held on October 16, jumping the gun slightly, as the actual anniversary of the living-donor transplant was November 27, 1989. November 27, 2009 fell on the day after Thanksgiving, making the fuzzy date of the conference understandable, and also providing a valid excuse for why your ScienceLife editors completely missed our own plans to mark the occasion.

But it’s not too late to share with you the videos we shot at the conference with Alyssa Smith, now 21, her mother Teri, and Christopher Broelsch, lead surgeon of the team that conducted the 12-hour surgery 20 years ago. The delay also allowed time for a touching letter to arrive at the Medical Center communications office, written to Alyssa and her family by a chemistry teacher who assisted on experiments in the 1970’s that helped pave the way for living-donor transplants. That letter was in response to Katie Scarlett Brandt’s excellent cover story for Medicine on the Midway this month retelling the story of that first surgery in 1989.

First, the videos. Here’s Teri and Alyssa talking about what they remember (or don’t remember) about the surgery 20 years ago, and the strange feeling of attending a conference where you’re the star patient:

And here’s two videos from the now-retired Dr. Broelsch, talking about his feelings before and after the first transplant, what it feels like to see Alyssa in full health 20 years later, and why he thinks more living-donor transplants should be performed:

The letter, received this week, was from Deberah Simon, now a chemistry teacher at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, who in the mid-1970’s worked as a laboratory technician for hepatologist James Boyer at the University of Chicago. In Boyer’s lab, Simon helped perform experiments testing whether a living-donor liver transplant would be feasible in humans, an idea Simon said in an interview was “pretty science fiction” at the time. Working long hours in a “cold room” necessary for the preservation of samples – and taking breaks every hour to “thaw out” at the radiator outside the refrigerated lab space – it was a long leap to think that her work would someday be applied to humans, a common feeling for most basic scientists. But when she saw Alyssa Smith’s face on the cover of Medicine on the Midway this month, she “cried and cried.”

“I was so overwhelmed,” Simon wrote to Alyssa, “that you were real and alive and such a beautiful person.”

When I reached Simon between classes by phone today, she elaborated.

“It’s almost indescribable, the feeling of being part of something so much bigger, and to be such a little teeny cog in it,” Simon said. “Each tiny incremental bit was a huge success to us and so exciting at the time. Now to see her face, sitting in my office, pinned on a bulletin board above my desk…every time I look at it, I tear up.”

Simon has adapted one of the experiments she performed at the time, using sucrose density gradient columns to separate out cellular components, to the general chemistry and “Chemistry of Art” classes she teaches at Whitman each year. Each time she teaches her students the experiment, she tells the story about how such benchtop work could play a small part in saving the life of someone like Alyssa Smith.

“I try to show them how it’s connected to the real world and set it in context,” Simon said. “Here’s how it was used, here’s what people do with this. This is not just number crunching, this is really real. I tell them the story every time of me working in the cold room room and how it was a success, and played a small part in surgeons eventually being able to do a living donor transplant. Students are really taken with that”

About Rob Mitchum (526 Articles)

Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.

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