Mother Receives “Gift Of Life” From Healthy Son In Region’s First Live-Donor Liver Transplant

Published: December 20th, 2000

Category: Family, Florida, Health, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla.–Holiday celebrations this year will be especially meaningful for Jacksonville resident Sandra Cornelius and her family because she has received the most precious gift of all — the gift of life, thanks to a life-saving liver transplant.

But that’s not the only miracle at work in this holiday story.

The person who saved 56-year-old Sandra’s life is her healthy 30-year-old son, Brad Cornelius, who donated a portion of his liver for the procedure — north Florida’s first live-donor liver transplant. The surgery was performed Friday (12/15) by University of Florida transplant surgeons at Shands Transplant Center in Gainesville.

The mother and son were listed today in good condition.

For live-donor liver transplantation, or LDLT, a healthy individual donates a segment of their liver to another individual, usually a relative or friend. Matching criteria include compatible blood type, organ size and general health of the donor.

Sandra suffered from primary biliary cirrhosis, a chronic auto-immune liver disease that slowly causes the body to attack the cells of the bile ducts, damaging the liver with inflammation and scarring. She had grown increasingly frail during the past year until she finally was unable to drive and no longer could lead the women’s Bible study group that gave her so much pleasure.

“I had deteriorated so much that I could only be active for about an hour and then I would have to rest for a couple of hours. I felt unable to do anything except for lie down,” said Sandra, who had been listed on the national organ-donor waiting list.

About a year ago,Sandra’s daughter, Lea, was traveling in Virginia when she saw a report on the news of an LDLT performed at a nearby teaching hospital. She excitedly called her family. Brad was enthusiastic.

“As soon as I heard about the procedure, I knew that this was something I was supposed to do,” he said.

Encouraged by news of the procedure, which is becoming more common in the United States, Lea started emailing transplant centers around the country to find out who could help her mother.

“The only place we heard back from was Shands. The University of Florida doctors told us they had started a program for live-donor liver transplants and were ready to plan their first procedure,” Sandra said. “And from then on, everyone in Gainesville helped us so much. We decided that living donation was the solution for us.”

The timing was ideal. The UF surgical team had recruited Dr. Shiro Fujita, who spent the past three years at Kyoto University in Japan. Since Kyoto University’s first LDLT in 1990, surgeons there have performed approximately 600 such transplants — the most LDLTs of any one center worldwide — with exemplary results.

“We recruited Dr. Fujita to the University of Florida because he’s one of the most experienced surgeons in live-donor liver transplantation. His skill complements our existing expertise,” said Dr. Alan Reed, UF College of Medicine associate professor of surgery and surgical director of liver transplantation. “Our commitment to our patients is to provide the best care available, and Dr. Fujita was the obvious choice for our program.”

Sandra and Brad met with the transplant team in June and their surgery was scheduled for December.

“Dr. Fujita and Dr. Reed spent three hours with us, explaining all the details of the surgery,” said Brad. “They were so patient. We knew we were doing the right thing.”

Fujita, a UF College of Medicine assistant professor of surgery, completed a residency in pathology (1993-1997) and training in transplantation (1997) at the UF College of Medicine, and also completed a research fellowship in transplantation at the University of Pittsburgh (1989-1991). He said studying in the United States is typical for most Japanese transplant surgeons because cadaveric transplants were not performed in Japan until 1997. Due to Japanese culture, the focus has been on living donors, and Japan takes the lead in live-donor liver transplantation.

As the surgery date neared, Sandra said she was filled with a sense of wonder that she was allowing Brad to be her donor.

“But I had a sense of confidence because he himself was so confident about wanting to do this from the first moment,” she said. “As a family, we have taken it one step at a time and have arrived at this point through prayer and by allowing God to be in control.”

Her husband, Larry, shared these sentiments. He recalled how Brad, who is single, told his siblings that undergoing surgery and missing work for several weeks would impact fewer people if he was the donor.

“I’ve always been proud of Brad. But I have been amazed at how he stood up and did this. He was so unselfish and there was no wavering or doubt on his part. That’s sort of the way Brad is, he’s a special kid,” said Larry, who works at Buddy Hutchinson Chevrolet in Jacksonville.

Larry said the family felt the living-related donor option was their best choice, knowing the chances of compatibility were better and feeling confident about Brad’s health. But having two family members facing surgery made it more emotional.

“So many people have been caring and have expressed concern, even total strangers. It gives you a lot of faith in people. I have the utmost confidence in the surgeons and Dr. Fujita’s achievements and success rate. I’m looking forward to saying to Sandra, let’s go out to eat or let’s go to a movie tonight. This transplant will get us back to normal. We haven’t been normal for a long time. I look forward to her feeling good.”

Sandra said she looks forward to enjoying her husband, three children and three grandchildren.

“I have a sense of gratitude that I have a son who was willing to make this kind of sacrifice,” she said. “I feel that I’m getting a new life, rather than getting back a life. Now I’m excited about whatever is ahead.”

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