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Living donor liver transplant one of six transplants in a single day at M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center

In 2019, there were nearly 7,400 living donor organ transplants nationwide – an all-time high. But the COVID-19 pandemic led to a steep decline in the number of transplants across the nation last year.

  • April 21, 2021
  • By Staff Writer

Most people send save-the-date cards in advance of weddings – but for Lindsay and her cousin the card was a unique and moving way to commemorate their soon-to-be living donor liver transplant.

Lindsay’s transplant journey began last year, after her cousin – who was in search of a living donor – sent an emotional email to family members. Testing determined Lindsay was a match. On Feb. 24, 2021, the pair traveled to M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center for the procedure. Theirs was one of six abdominal organ transplant surgeries that took place at the hospital in a single day. 

In 2019, there were nearly 7,400 living donor transplants nationwide – an all-time high. But the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant drop the next year. In 2020, roughly 5,700 living donor transplants took place. Due to elevated pandemic risk factors, many transplant centers across the country, including M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, paused living donor transplants. 

With the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center has restarted its living donor transplant program. The timing worked out for Lindsay and her cousin, who were at the top of the transplant wait list.

Becoming a living liver donor

A living donor liver transplant is a complex procedure. Livers are the only organ in the body that can regenerate, which means one person can donate a portion of their liver to another recipient. Within a few months of transplant, the portion of the liver remaining in the donor and the portion donated to the recipient will regrow fully, barring any complications.

M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center has been performing living donor liver donations since 1997. A 2018 survey of 176 people who donated their livers through the program showed their long-term quality of life was, on average, higher than that of the typical American.

“In total, we have worked with 195 living liver donors at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and the outcomes have been very good,” said Transplant Surgeon Srinath Chinnakotla, MD, who helped perform Lindsay’s operation. Chinnakotla also serves as a professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Over the last two years, we’ve had 100 percent success with living donor liver transplants.”

Comprehensive support for donors and recipients

Though the outlook for transplant donors and recipients is generally good, potential living donors still need to take many things into consideration.

Lindsay went through a comprehensive evaluation process that began in August 2020, including blood tests, screenings and interviews with M Health Fairview surgical staff, transplant coordinators, and an assigned social worker.

“Those evaluations took about two days. They were long days, but they weren’t hard days. About a week later, they called to say that everything looked good and I was approved,” she said. “After my application was accepted, I had a tough decision to make. I visited with friends a lot, I talked with a counselor about some of the anxiety that I was feeling.”

Lindsay’s decision to become a living liver donor hinged on one question: what if her cousin died on the liver transplant waiting list? “If I didn’t go forward with it and my cousin died, could I live with myself? And the answer was no,” she said.

After agreeing to the donation, Lindsay sent her cousin a bouquet of flowers along with a save-the-date card. Shortly after, they began texting about how they each were preparing for the transplant.

“We were able to FaceTime before the surgery, but we didn’t get to see each other until after [the procedure] due to COVID-19,” Lindsay said. Lindsay took multiple COVID-19 tests before the transplant and was able to get a COVID-19 vaccine [KB1]before donating to ensure her health and safety prior to surgery.

The surgery itself required four surgeons – two working with the donor and two with the recipient. Chinnakotla and Transplant Surgeon Raja Kandaswamy, MD, MBA, led Lindsay’s surgery, while Transplant Surgeons Varvara Kirchner, MD, and Timothy Pruett, MD, led the surgery for the recipient.

In addition to the surgical team, there were numerous other providers – including transplant coordinators, nurses, physical therapists, social workers and others – helping Lindsay and her cousin through their preparation, procedures and recovery. Since leaving the hospital, this team is now working with Lindsay to provide ongoing care where she lives. She travels to her local primary care clinic for follow-up appointments and speaks with M Health Fairview providers over the phone during the visit.

Despite the success of Lindsay’s transplant – and the five other procedures that took place on Feb. 24 – the total number of deceased and living donor liver transplants is on track to fall in 2021 from last year’s totals due to the pandemic.

Interested in becoming a liver donor? Start with our online health history questionnaire.