Robert M McNamara, MD, FAAEM
Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD
Liver Transplant Overview
The liver is the second most commonly transplanted major organ, after the kidney, so it is clear that liver disease is a common and serious problem in this country. It is important for liver transplant candidates and their families to understand the basic process involved with liver transplants, to appreciate some of the challenges and complications that face liver transplant recipients (people who receive livers), and to recognize symptoms that should alert recipients to seek medical help.
Some basics are as follows:
- The liver donor is the person who gives, or donates, all or part of his or her liver to the waiting patient who needs it. Donors are usually people who have died and wish to donate their organs. Some people, however, donate part of their liver to another person (often a relative) while living.
- Orthotopic liver transplantation refers to a procedure in which a failed liver is removed from the patient's body and a healthy donor liver is transplanted into the same location. In this case, the liver donor is someone who has recently died. The procedure is the most common method used to transplant livers.
- With a living donor transplant, a healthy person donates part of his or her liver to the recipient. This procedure has been increasingly successful and shows promise as a solution to the shortage of liver donors. It is becoming the most frequent option in children, partly because child-sized livers are in such short supply. Other methods of transplantation are used for people who have potentially reversible liver damage or as temporary measures for those who are awaiting liver transplants. These other methods are not discussed in detail in this article.
- The body needs a healthy liver. The liver is an organ located in the right side of the abdomen below the ribs. The liver has many vital functions.
- It is a powerhouse that produces varied substances in the body, including (1) glucose, a basic sugar and energy source; (2) proteins, the
building blocks for growth; (3) blood-clotting factors, substances that aid
in healing wounds; and (4) bile, a fluid stored in the gallbladder and necessary for the absorption of fats and vitamins.
- As the largest solid organ in the body, the liver is ideal for storing important substances like vitamins and minerals. It also acts as a filter, removing impurities from the blood. Finally, the liver metabolizes and detoxifies substances ingested by the body. Liver disease occurs when these essential functions are disrupted. Liver transplants are needed when damage to the liver severely impairs a person's health and quality of life.
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