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Serious Medicine. Extraordinary Care.

25th Anniversary of Liver Transplant Program
More than 2,600 Liver Transplants Performed Since 1985

Twenty five years ago this month, on July 19, 1985, a team of University of Nebraska Medical Center surgeons led by Byers Shaw, MD, and R. Patrick Wood, MD (now of Houston) performed the city's first liver transplant. 14 liver transplants were performed that year, launching The Nebraska Medical Center's liver transplant program, the fourth of its kind in the nation at the time. The following year, there were 55 recipients of liver transplants.

In 25 years, more than 2,600 liver transplants have been performed. The liver transplant program performs about 120 transplants a year, making it easily one of the 10 most active transplant programs of its kind in the nation, said Dr. Sorrell, gastroenterologist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The medical center also is one of the premier pediatric liver transplant programs in the world and is one of the most experienced transplant centers in performing split-liver, reduced size and auxiliary liver transplants.

The first liver transplant recipient, a 54 year old male, lived seventeen years after the operation and died from Alzheimer's.

The team's first successful child was three-year-old Alisa Attrill Sutton who received a transplant on Aug. 25, 1985. She is among those still doing well.

"I think the first transplants were intense because we all wanted the program to be successful," said Laurie Williams, liver transplant coordinator at The Nebraska Medical Center. "It was sort of like having your first baby -you wanted to make sure everything was just right."

"The first liver transplant patient was very ill, so ill that a suggestion was made to Dr. Shaw that maybe the first transplant operation shouldn't be on such a sick patient," commented Williams. "But, Dr. Shaw's reaction was, 'We were here to help people and not worry about statistics.' That has been the nature of our program - to always strive to do what's best for our patients and their families."

Alisa Sutton, liver transplant recipient, and transplant surgeon, Dr. Byers Shaw.Alisa Sutton, liver transplant recipient, and transplant surgeon, Dr. Byers Shaw.

Growth of Liver Program through the years

"We've come a long way since then," said Dr. Sorrell, who until 2005 served as the medical director of the transplant program.

After transplantation, liver transplant recipients used to spend a few months in the hospital. Patients are now discharged within 10 to 14 days post-transplant.

"Because there are more medicines available to us now, we can personalize care so patients are discharged more quickly from the hospital," said Williams.

Through the years, the liver disease and transplant program has grown into a comprehensive program. It incorporated researchers including biochemist Anthony Barak, PhD, and Dean Tuma, PhD, Dr. Sorrell's research partner for 30 years; as well as several key physicians: Rowen Zetterman, MD, now dean of the Creighton University School of Medicine; Alan Langnas, DO, director of the liver transplant program; and Timothy McCashland, MD, the medical director of the liver disease program.

"The list of surgeons, physicians and other medical professionals is a great indication as to why we have become nationally and internationally recognized," says Dr. Sorrell. "We have been fortunate to recruit the kind of professionals who viewed the study of liver disease with excitement and fascination."

"All this has combined to create a tremendous amount of intellectual ferment for research and enhanced the reputation of the university and the hospital. There isn't anywhere you can go in the world where there is a group of liver experts who don't know about Nebraska and our program. It took a lot of people to make that happen."

4th liver transplant recipient still thriving
"I've been a miracle from the start and I'm still going strong"

It also took patients willing to undergo new surgical procedures. Patients like Alisa Sutton, who defeated all odds.

"I've been a miracle from the start and I'm still going strong," said Alisa. Born with biliary atresia, Alisa's mother was told that Alisa would not live through infancy. Biliary atresia is where bile flow from the liver to the gallbladder is blocked, trapping bile inside the liver, and eventually causing liver failure. In some patients, liver transplantation is the only answer.

"But because liver transplantation was so new, our doctors didn't talk to us about that option," said Judy Attrill, Alisa's mother. The Attrills live in Hinton, Iowa, a small town outside of Sioux City.

"It was just by coincidence that I learned about liver transplantation," said Judy. "I stayed home one Sunday morning from church because I wasn't feeling well and I saw someone on television talking about liver transplants."

At the time, Alisa was 18 months old and weighed only nine pounds.

"I was told that we needed to work on getting Alisa to gain weight before she'd be considered for transplantation," said Judy.

The day Judy received the call that a liver was available for Alisa, Alisa weighed twenty pounds. The family was escorted by plane to Omaha.

"It was amazing to be one of the first to be transplanted," said Judy. "It is a true miracle. To think that Alisa is now married and has three children of her own is absolutely amazing."