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New technique in liver transplant tested in Seattle

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Paul Hamilton (KOMO Photo)

SEATTLE--It could be a game changer in organ transplant. UW Medicine is testing a new way to deliver a donated liver to the surgical suite. And the first patient to undergo surgery with the new method is unique, not just for how he got his new lease on life, but for who it came from.

"It all goes back to my sister," patient Paul Hamilton said. "If it wasn't for her, I'd be dead in a few months."

Paul's sister Danielle died unexpectedly. She had signed up to be an organ donor, and the family directed that her liver go to Paul. He contracted Hepatitis C, likely from a blood transfusion during surgery after an accident in 1986. His health was in serious decline, but he was still on the waiting list for a new liver.

"She's still an inspiration. She's the one that's keeping me going," Paul said of his sister.

Danielle's gift was also part of a first for UW Medicine. For decades, donated organs have been transported in a cooler. Paul's donated liver came in a warm preservation machine, with nutrients and oxygen still circulating. It kept the liver in better shape for Paul's surgery.

And the experimental technique could eventually help doctors preserve fatty livers that right now, might be donated but must be thrown out.

"Those livers cannot be used," said Dr. Martin Montenovo. "So ideally, we'd like to see these livers can be placed in the machine, the fat can be removed from the liver and then this liver can be usable. We estimate we might increase the utilization of organs by about 30 percent."

The hospital currently performs around 100 liver transplants a year, so that improvement could lead to 30 more surgeries. That would be 30 more people like Paul, who's been on a severely restricted diet for years. His new liver freed him up to eat a full Thanksgiving meal, in celebration of life and his sister's love.

"I am keeping her alive, and she is keeping me alive," he said. "And that's the way I have to look at it."

Paul said two days after surgery, he clearly heard his sister's voice. "I thought I was half dreaming," he said. "But I really heard her voice. Get up, get going, get to work. And I was like, OK. Here we go." Paul says he started doing tai chi and walking. And now he's ready to be discharged from the hospital.

While mourning his sister, he is also grateful for her gift. Danielle's donated liver saved Paul's life, and it was a gift to science that could help save many more.

"She was a giver," Paul said. "She loved to give."

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