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Intermountain Healthcare Clinicians adapt and continue to perform life-saving organ transplants during COVID-19 pandemic

Intermountain Healthcare

Dr. Richard Gilroy, transplant hepatologist and Intermountain Healthcare’s liver transplant medical director spoke with Surae Chinn on ABC4 today regarding life-saving organ transplants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread throughout the United States, Intermountain Healthcare’s abdominal transplant program has created new protocols and safety measures to ensure that these lifesaving procedures continue.

Although many nonessential planned surgeries and procedures have been delayed, recent guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services identified organ transplants as procedures that should not be postponed if possible, categorizing them as “essential.”

To help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and continue patient care, Intermountain clinicians are using telemedicine and video visits whenever possible to continue evaluating and treating potential transplant patients.

Transplant clinicians have also put systems in place to maintain patient and caregiver safety.

“Donors and recipients are considered on a case-by-case basis,” said Diane Alonso, transplant surgeon, and director of abdominal transplant surgery for Intermountain Healthcare. “It’s a balancing act. We take into account the risks of postponing surgery with the risks of not only the surgery but also the risk of potentially being exposed to the virus.”

One of those cases is Bradley Peterson, 60, a banker who lives on a ranch in Logan, Utah.

On March 26, in the middle of the night and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Peterson and his wife Lori got the call from a transplant coordinator that a new liver may be available for him and they needed to get to the hospital. With Peterson’s liver deteriorating, he needed this life-saving transplant.

He had been diagnosed a year earlier with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare autoimmune disease that destroys the bile ducts in and around the liver.

Peterson and his wife processed all the numbers and risks presented to them by the Intermountain transplant team. “Virus or no virus, the essential parts of life do go on,” he said. “There’s a timing that you can’t get back and that opportunity came, and we didn’t know if it would come again.” The next day, Peterson got that gift of life.

“I noticed his eyes,” said Lori when she got to see her husband for the first time. “The whites of his eyes were so white and bright. I knew his new liver was working.”

Now, just four weeks from surgery, the two are taking extra precautions like isolating and washing everything before it comes into the house they are renting close to the hospital. The next day, Peterson got that gift of life.

“What Intermountain has done is make this life-saving procedure a priority,” said Richard Gilroy, MD, transplant hepatologist and Intermountain Healthcare’s liver transplant medical director. “We’ve made changes, adapted, put systems in place and we’re changing the lives of our patients.”

Intermountain surgical teams have performed 23 liver transplants this year, five in the last month. “This pace puts us on track for eclipsing last year’s record of 53 liver transplants,” said Dr. Gilroy.

In accordance with state and national professional transplant society recommendations, living donations for both kidney and liver are also being carefully considered before scheduling surgery.

“The concern in living donation is the risk to the donor who could contract the virus during their hospitalization and put them at risk for major health complications in what is otherwise a healthy individual,” said Dr. Alonso. “Our goal is to continue to care for our patients to provide this life saving procedure whenever it’s safe to do so without putting other healthy individuals at risk.”

Currently, the Intermountain transplant team, local government, and hospitals are planning for careful reinstatement of select living donation transplants in a manner that will protect the donor and minimize their personal risk for exposure to COVID, while still taking care of the patients and transplant team health care providers.

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