Intermountain Medical Center celebrates 25th anniversary of liver transplant program

Published: Monday, April 25 2011 2:33 p.m. MDT

MURRAY — Ryan Cardon has plenty to celebrate next month. He'll graduate from pharmacy school. He'll also observe the third anniversary of a lifesaving liver transplant.

Cardon, 29, has a unique view of Intermountain Medical Center's liver transplant program — he has been a patient. But he also served a rotation with the transplant team as a pharmacy student.

"I felt like it gave these patients a little bit of hope seeing someone on the other side of the experience," Cardon said Monday during festivities marking the 25th anniversary of Intermountain's liver transplant program.

As a student, Cardon observed the significant need for more donor organs — of all kinds. "In my brief time with the transplant team, I saw patients waiting for livers who didn't make it. It's hard to see. Fortunately, I got to see someone transplanted as well, a man who receive a liver and the gratitude (he) showed," he said.

Some 200 transplant recipients, family members, donor families, living donors and clinical staff celebrated the milestone during an observance on the IMC campus.

Among the participants was Lyle Thacker, a retired school principal, who was the first liver transplant recipient in the Intermountain West and the IMC program's first transplant recipient. His transplant was conducted March 22, 1986, at LDS Hospital.

Thacker had a liver disease that was slowly choking off his bile ducts. "I didn't have much of a future," the now 79-year-old grandfather of 13 and great-grandfather of 10 said Monday.

But that all changed with a phone call informing him that a donor liver had been located. "The liver transplant was so much fun, I had a kidney transplant 10 years later," Thacker said, explaining that anti-rejection drugs had damaged his kidneys.

All of that is in Thacker's rearview mirror. "I've enjoyed 25 years of life since that time. I saw many grandchildren and grandchildren come to life," said Thacker.

Over the past 25 years, advances in treatment and anti-rejection drugs have vastly improved outcomes for patients of Intermountain's liver transplant program, said Dr. Willem Van der Werf, IMC's division chief of transplant surgery. IMC averages 40-45 liver transplants a year with a 93 percent survival rate for the first year, which is higher than the national average.

For all of the successes — and there have been hundreds since the first liver transplant in the Intermountain West in 1986 and the 750 that have followed — the number of patients on waiting lists far outstrip the number of available organs. There are 110 patients on IMC's liver transplant list. "It states what big a need there is for more donation," said Dr. Gordon Harmston, interim medical director of IMC's Liver Transplant Program.

Some patients have waited up to six years for a liver. "Sometimes we lose patients who are waiting. That's very hard," Harmston said.

"Organ donation is a crucial step in this process. The bottleneck in organ transplantation is the number of people willing to donate," he said.

Email: marjorie@desnews.com

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