SALT LAKE CITY — When Jason Clark learned his father needed a liver transplant, he volunteered.
"We did blood tests, MRIs, CT scans," said Clark, 28, who lives in Nibley, Cache County. "I was sitting in my doctor's office and I got a little sticky note that said what my blood type is, and I was like, 'OK, this changes everything.'"
Clark was the only one of his siblings who matched. From his bed at University Hospital Tuesday moments before the transplant, he said he felt it was meant to be.
Tuesday was only the second time the risky and complicated adult-to-adult liver donation surgery has been done in Utah. In November, Intermountain Medical Center completed a rare live liver donation. Rachel Garcia-Trujillo was the liver donor for her mother, Betty Garcia.
After a car accident in 1980, Lynn Clark, Jason Clark's father, had a blood plasma transfusion infected with hepatitis C, which caused cirrhosis.
"He has a walker that he uses at home. Going out and checking the mail is hard. watching him lose that mobility has been hard," Jason Clark said.
Lynn Clark has been sick a long time. "I can't run," said Clark, who is 57 and lives in Hyrum. "I don't have a very good sense of balance. I'm not able to walk by myself."
The risks are higher for liver donors than in the more common kidney transplants. According to the American Transplant Foundation, they include bile leakage, intestinal problems and even death. But that didn't deter Jason Clark.
"No, no hesitation," he said. "I want to help my dad. I want him to get better."
Clark and his father held up yellow matching liver pillows. They also have T-shirts. Humor helped the father and son deal with the stress.
They also rely on their faith, which buoyed them. "We've had a lot of prayers said in our behalf and know that our Heavenly Father is watching over us," Jason Clark said.
Dr. Robin Kim, transplant surgeon at University Hospital, and his team has been preparing for years. It's their first living donor liver transplant at University Hospital.
"They'll be in two rooms, side by side, and we will have two separate teams," Kim said.
In 2014, more than 16,260 people needed liver transplants in the U.S. Sixty-two percent didn't get one. Utah has the longest waitlist. About 3,365 people need a liver in our region, according to the University of Utah.
"All our staff have gotten close to this particular pair; not only because it's our first, they represent the best of what transplant has to offer," Kim said.
After a tearful goodbye, Jason Clark was out.
Kim removed 60 percent of his liver in the six-hour surgery, followed by his father's six-hour surgery across the hall. Jason Clark's liver will regenerate in two to two and a half months — 90 percent of it will have grown back.
"You guys ready?" the doctor asked in the operating room, surrounded by fellow surgeons and nurses.
Then the moment of truth. Surgeons removed Jason Clark's liver and cleaned it, so it was ready to go.
"Things are looking really great for the donor," Kim said, as he quickly and carefully walked the liver across the hall where Lynn Clark was ready to receive it.
When the donor liver is taken out, surgeons need to cauterize or stitch hundreds of small blood vessels and bile ducts shut to reduce risk of internal bleeding and infection. They then remove the diseased liver from the recipient and replace it with the new liver.
It's a sacrifice the family hopes will stand as an example for their children. The oldest of Jason Clark's three children is the only one who can really understand what has happened. "He keeps saying how excited he is that Daddy's helping Grandpa," said Naomi Clark, Jason Clark's wife.
And this groundbreaking surgery will lead to more lifesaving transplants in Utah.
"I will always have a part of my son with me," Lynn Clark said.
His son will spend a few days in the intensive care unit and a week or two in the hospital. Lynn Clark should begin feeling better within days. Both were up and walking around the day after the surgery.
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