Adult Living-Donor Liver Transplantation Performed at UMass Memorial: Wife donates half of her liver to husband

June 16, 1999

WORCESTER, Mass. - Surgeons at UMass Memorial Health Care performed the region's first adult living-donor liver transplant operation, in which a 42-year-old North Grafton woman donated half of her liver to save the life of her ailing husband. This rare and complex procedure is being performed at just a handful of hospitals around the country but is expected to provide a partial solution to the severe shortage of organs and become a possible alternative to the more than 12,000 people currently on waiting lists for livers nationwide.

"The doctors told me I might be on a waiting list for two years," said Thomas Hawes, 48, whose own liver was damaged by liver cancer and who had been on a waiting list since December. "With this surgery, my wife was able to give me half her liver now, while I'm still healthy enough to undergo the operation and have a better shot at a successful transplant."

Mr. Hawes and his wife, Kathleen, underwent a number of tests to determine their blood type compatibility and whether Mrs. Hawes's liver was large and healthy enough to be separated. After days of tests and consultations with surgeons, hepatologists (liver specialists), and anesthesiologists, the Haweses were ready.

On May 14, the UMass Memorial transplantation team, headed by Eliezer Katz, MD, director of the liver transplantation program at UMass Memorial and associate professor of surgery at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, removed the entire right lobe of Mrs. Hawes's liver and transplanted it into her husband. Katz was assisted in the day-long operation by Robert Harland, MD, newly appointed chief of the division of transplantation and professor of surgery, and Ravi Chari, MD, director of gastrointestinal surgery and assistant professor of surgery and cell biology.

"It was scary," said Mrs. Hawes, "but we're just so grateful to the team for what they've done for Tom, for us, for our family."

Today, just four weeks after the surgery, both Mr. and Mrs. Hawes are doing "exceptionally well," according to Dr. Katz. "They look great," he said. "This is wonderful not just for Kathy and Tom, but for many other people who need liver transplants. We are hopeful that more people can be helped with this sort of procedure, so they don't have to wait years for a liver, getting sicker and sicker while they wait."

Both Mr. and Mrs. Hawes were discharged from the hospital within a week of the surgery and are recouperating at home. Tests indicate that approximately 50% of Mrs. Hawes's missing lobe has regenerated and is functioning well. (Twenty-five percent of the lobe had regenerated just eight days after the surgery.) In addition, the lobe transplanted into Mr. Hawes is already restoring almost full metabolic function and is expected to grow to nearly full size and volume within six to eight weeks. Mr. Hawes plans to return to work at the end of August, while Mrs. Hawes has already resumed caring for the couple's four young daughters.

Because the liver has the ability to regenerate itself after a portion is removed, living-donor transplantation is becoming a viable alternative for many patients who may run out of time before a cadaver organ becomes available. UMass Memorial was granted approval by the commonwealth in October 1997 to perform liver transplants in part to provide a range of innovative procedures such as living-donor transplants and "split-liver" transplants, in which one cadaveric liver is divided in half and used in two different recipients. The state's first liver transplant outside of Boston was performed a few months after approval was granted, in January 1998. Since then, UMass has performed 17 more liver transplants. The added availability of liver transplants at UMass Memorial reflects the institution's expertise and leadership in the treatment of liver disease.

UMass Memorial Health Care is central Massachusetts' largest not-for-profit health care delivery system, covering the complete health care continuum with teaching hospitals, affiliated community hospitals, freestanding primary care practices, ambulatory outpatient clinics, a long-term care facility, home health agency, hospice program, rehabilitation group and mental health services. UMass Memorial is the clinical partner for the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which is composed of the Medical School, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Graduate School of Nursing.