First living-donor liver transplant recipient graduates from college May 9

First living-donor liver transplant recipient graduates from college May 9

May 7, 2010
On Sunday, May 9 (Mothers Day), Alyssa Smith, the recipient of the first living-donor liver transplant in the United States--using tissue donated to her by her mother--will graduate magna cum laude from Meredith College in Raleigh, NC, with a bachelor's degree in social work.

On November 27, 1989, a surgical team at the University of Chicago Medical Center performed Alyssa's transplant. They removed a portion of the liver from her mother, Teresa Smith, a 29-year-old woman from Schertz, Texas (20 miles from San Antonio), and transplanted that tissue into her 21-month-old daughter. Alyssa, who weighed 25 pounds at the time, suffered from biliary atresia, the most common fatal liver disease in childhood.

Although physicians spoke at length with Teri Smith, the donor, about potential risks, she insisted that the decision to donate was an easy one. "Once you've given someone a big piece of your heart," Smith said at the time, "it's easy to throw in a little bit of liver."

Surgery began at 7:30 a.m. that morning when the transplant team--led by surgeons Christoph Broelsch, Jean Emond, J. Richard Thistlethwaite and Thomas Heffron--began the removal of the left lobe of Teri Smith's liver. The operations lasted more than 12 hours and Alyssa needed two more follow-up surgeries, but she recovered well, as did her mother, the donor.

Alyssa left the hospital to stay at the nearby Ronald McDonald House on January 8, 1990. On January 12, after inviting the entire medical team to Alyssa's anticipated high school graduation 16 years later, Alyssa and Teresa flew back to San Antonio, where they were met by the Schertz school district marching band.

Alyssa now leads a normal life. Her anti-rejection medications were gradually but steadily reduced after the transplant. For seven years she has been off of them entirely.

"I've just been a normal teenager," she said during a conference last fall to celebrate the historic operation. "I've had a normal life since then."

After the University of Chicago team completed a series of 20 living donor liver transplants, the procedure was quickly adopted worldwide, especially in Japan, where the use of cadaver donors has been limited. It has since helped nearly 4,000 patients in the United States.

Image courtesy of Meredith College Department of Marketing.