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Man grateful to be alive after doctors at the U. performed a transplant first

Published: Thursday, April 12 2012 12:56 p.m. MDT

Joe Yanez had a rare procedure done to save his life on Feb. 16. Doctors at the University of Utah performed the 10th liver and valve transplant in the world and the first using a minimally invasive technique. On April 11, 2012, at University Hospital, he said he was getting better each day.

Joe DeLuca, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Colorado man says he’s lucky to be alive after doctors at the University of Utah performed a rare surgery to save his life.

Joe Yanez received an emergency blood transfusion in the mid-60s. The blood was tainted with hepatitis C, causing advanced liver disease. He needed a liver transplant and was a match for a liver 16 years ago, but decided not to have the surgery.

“I panicked,” he said. “I’m not ready. I’m not sick because I felt great at the time.” He was scared and concerned about the giant scar the surgery would leave. He told doctors to find someone who needed it more than him.

Nearly 20 years later, he went to the hospital in Colorado and was told he not only needed a liver transplant, but he developed heart valve disease. He didn’t believe he needed both surgeries because he was going to the gym every day and his heart never bothered him.

"Because I was feeling pretty good, doctors did not understand how I sustained the health that I was in all this time that I was waiting for a liver," Yanez said.

His doctors told him they were unable to do both procedures, so he went to the University of Utah where they performed the 10th liver and heart valve transplant in the world. What made this surgery the first of its kind was that the valve was replaced using a minimally invasive technique.

Heart surgeon Dr. Craig Selzman decided to use the newer technique because it would minimize pain, bleeding and complications.

“The thought is you're not quite beating up the patient as much," Selzman said. "They're able to heal a little bit quicker, get back to work a little quicker, maybe lose a little less blood that sometimes happens with heart surgery."

Both surgeries were complex and doing them at the same time was risky.

"What was kind of tricky with this was timing it, so that the valve could be done while the liver was being procured,” said liver transplant surgeon Dr. Robin Kim.

Doctors also had to worry about Yanez's deteriorating health condition. "The Achilles' heel of transplantation is that people can get too sick to get transplanted," said Dr. Kim. "Everyone has a window."

Yanez knew he was critically ill and would die without the transplant. “I wanted to be here for my family, for my grandchildren,” he said. So the surgery was performed Feb. 16. He came through the surgery well.

“I feel stronger day by day,” Yanez said Wednesday, “but it’s still difficult to do everything that I was accustomed to doing.”

He hopes to return to his active lifestyle he once enjoyed, such as skiing, and playing all kinds of sports. U. doctors said that since these types of procedures are extremely rare, they'll publish the details of their surgery so that future patients can live a better quality of life after surgery.

“I really do feel great, and I’m getting better each day,” he said.

Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba

E-mail: vvo-duc@ksl.com

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