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Physician donates part of her liver helping to save the life of a baby; Learn how you can become an organ donor

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Doctors are used to saving lives, but often don’t find themselves doing so by donating an organ. But that’s exactly the situation Dr. Cara Heuser, a maternal fetal medicine physician at Intermountain Healthcare, found herself in when she volunteered to be an organ donor this past year.  

Dr. Heuser is a 42-year-old physician, wife, mother of two, and now Good Samaritan organ donor. Dr. Heuser says she’s always promoted organ donation to her patients but didn’t know you could give an organ to someone you didn’t know, until a friend told her about it.  

After a lot of research last year, Dr. Heuser filled out the online form – signing up to become a live liver donor and starting the process to become qualified and eventually matched with a pediatric patient in need of a new liver. 

“No one should have to die because there are no organs available,” said Dr. Heuser. 

Within a few months, after passing all the qualifying tests, Dr. Heuser became the patient and soon found herself on the other side of the operating table. 

She said she was eager to make what she called an “abstract idea” a reality.  

“It wasn’t important who received my organ,” said Dr. Heuser. “I felt like I was helping everyone on the transplant waiting list, because everyone moves up when someone gets their liver.” 

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, and every nine minutes another person is added to the transplant waiting list. 

The recipient of Dr. Heuser’s partial liver is an 8-month-old baby with progressive intrahepatic cholestasis – a liver disorder that impairs the release of digestive fluid from liver cells and was in acute liver failure. The recipient’s doctors report a “wonderful recovery.” 

“Such an amazing miracle – all from the altruism of a hero,” said Dr. Manuel Rodriguez-Davalos, MD, transplant surgeon and director of Intermountain Healthcare’s Living Donor Liver Transplant Program. 

Dr. Heuser is considered an altruistic, non-directed donor or Good Samaritan donor. This is when the donor is neither related to nor known by the recipient. He or she makes the donation purely out of selfless reasons. The recipient is determined primarily by medical compatibility. 

Dr. Heuser’s surgery was also a first for Intermountain Healthcare surgeons – the first robotic living liver hepatectomy procedure for a pediatric liver transplant patient in the western United States. 

This innovative procedure is done only in very few specialized centers across the country. It aims to improve recovery time for living donors, as well as encourage more people to consider donating. 

Normally a liver transplant surgery involves a large incision for access to the liver. The robotic procedure gives surgeons an amplified 3D view while the surgeons manipulate the four robotic arms from a computer console across the room.  

In preparing for the surgery Intermountain’s team of surgeons also utilized 3D models. Working with specialists at the Intermountain Transformation Laboratory, 3D-printed models of the donor and the recipient’s livers were created. 

“With the use of a robot, 3D imaging and 3D printing technology we can perform the most precision liver transplant surgery,” said Dr.Rodriguez-Davalos. “The results are minimal blood loss for the donor and the recipient.” 

Unlike other organs, the liver regenerates. Within months both livers grow to about 90 percent of the normal size. 

Once they have both completely healed and social workers have agreed to a meeting, Dr. Heuser said she would like to meet her recipient and the parents face-to-face. For now, they exchange letters, celebrating birthdays and new life.  

Since the surgery and a few weeks of recovery, Dr. Heuser is back meeting her own patients and with confidence, said she would again absolutely make the same decision she did to become a live liver donor.  

She just asks others to also consider organ donation. 

“Talk to your family about it, give blood, or become a bone marrow donor. It’s intense, emotional, and oh, so rewarding,” said Dr. Heuser. “I’m glad I had the opportunity to do it.” 

To help save a life by donating one of your kidneys or a portion of your liver to someone in need you can go to their website. After you submit the questionnaire, a representative from the Intermountain Transplant Center will call you to discuss the living donation process, required testing, financial considerations risks, and recovery. 

Living donor candidates should be: 

  • In good physical and mental health 
  • At least 18 years old 
  • Be willing to donate: No one should feel that they MUST donate 
  • Be well informed: A good donor candidate understands the risks, benefits, and potential outcomes, both good and bad for both the donor and recipient 
  • Have a good support system 

For additional information about Intermountain Healthcare, please visit their website. If you or a family member is experiencing a medical emergency, dial 9-1-1.

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