NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans has long been known as a tourist destination, but it’s also emerging as one of the best places to get a life saving procedure – a liver transplant.
I must admit I’m acutely aware of liver issues and stories because of my father.
For a brief time our family was preparing for the reality my father would need a liver transplant. That day never came. He died of liver cancer before any transplant considerations would be relevant.
But for the thousands of Americans waiting for a liver transplant, Ochsner Medical Center is quickly becoming one of the top choices to receive one.
At the Lakefront Airport in early February, a private plane was delivering a vital package. No time could be spared.
"Minutes count,” pilot Steve Hauth said. “With those organs, minutes count."
Inside a standard looking cooler box, carried on the broad shoulders of organ procurement coordinator Terrance Bell, was a liver, heading to New Orleans to be transplanted.
"Liver is on the ground, I’m leaving the airport," Bell said into his cell phone.
Within minutes, Bell and the liver were heading to Ochsner Medical Center, where more liver transplants are being performed than anywhere else in the United States.
There were 175 liver transplants performed at Ochsner Medical Center last year, and 174 in 2012, making it the busiest liver transplant center in the nation.
But doctors say it’s not just a function of volume.
“Outcomes, people surviving and I think there's more,” transplant surgeon Dr. Trevor Reichman said. “It's not just people surviving. It's things like complications, so the complications rates are presumably lower. People are getting out of the hospital faster here.”
It’s part of the reason why liver patient Sue Evans came to New Orleans. An auto-immune disease, along with other health problems, is damaging her liver. The recent diagnosis is another setback to what’s been a difficult 12 months for Evans.
"It's been tough because my husband passed away in May, and I was sick in May and I have been going through this since that time," Evans said.
The 67-year-old grandmother from Bogalusa is now on a long liver transplant waiting list, one of roughly 100 patients at Ochsner hoping for a live-saving organ. There are more than 17,000 waiting nationwide, with only about 6,000 liver transplants taking place each year. Knowing those numbers, Evans has a lot of questions.
"What if I don't ever get a liver? What if all of a sudden I get so sick that a liver wouldn't do anything for me?" Evans asked.
Reichman is a transplant surgeon at Ochsner. He said statistically, the chances of a patient getting a liver transplant and then surviving are among the highest at Ochsner. The volume of liver transplants and the relatively high number of positive outcomes at the hospital is the main driver behind consecutive years for the medical center at the top of the list for liver transplants.
But there is a mathematical reality that many patients will never receive a transplant.
"It's really life or death and some of them are really within days of potentially dying," Reichman said.
"It's scary and it's frightening and you wonder well are things going to be ok," Evans said.
As Ochsner’s liver transplant success rates are becoming more widely recognized, the medical center and New Orleans is gaining a reputation as the destination for liver transplants. Hospitals and transplants programs from the Northeast and other regions have usually been associated with “first rate” liver transplantation, but that may be changing.
"Many of our patients are from out of state. In the past few years, we've had patients coming from California, from the Northeast, we have international patients," Dr. Nigel Girgrah said.
Girgrah is the medical director of Ochsner's multi-organ transplant program; he's also a liver specialist. He said many of the liver transplant cases he sees are avoidable through simple screening for one virus, Hepatitis C.
"About 50 percent of the liver transplants we do are due to end-stage liver disease due to Hepatitis C," Girgrah said.
Like my father, few people ever know they're carrying the Hepatitis C virus, because it has few obvious symptoms, and the ones that do show up, like fatigue, are often too common to cause alarm until it's too late. It also did not help that my father rarely went to the doctor’s office.
It was partly due to our family not having health insurance when we first emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. But it was also due to his stubborn nature that often followed the logic that if nothing was broken or bleeding, everything was fine.
Through my father’s experience, I’ve come to learn that so many his age can also be at risk.
"Historically, I think there's been an under appreciation of risk factors for Hepatitis C and I think new screening guidelines are suggesting baby boomers, all baby boomers, get screened and tested for Hepatitis C," Girgrah said.
Liver problems often start in benign ways.
Susan Smith learned that back in 2013.
“I was very tired, that's the main thing," Smith said.
In December, the 58-year-old former school teacher from Gulfport, Miss., found herself at Ochsner needing not only a liver transplant, but also a transplant for her kidneys.
A form of Hepatitis not associated with alcohol triggered her liver condition. Unlike many patients who never survive long enough to get a transplant, Smith waited only 11 weeks to get another shot at life.
"That might be the hardest thing,” she said. “It is difficult, sometimes, to think about. I do think about the donor. I don't know who the donor was, but whoever it was, and their family, you know I’m very grateful to them. They saved my life.”
Hauth, the pilot, probably understands how that feels more than most. He's been piloting missions to retrieve livers from donors for more than a decade with an air ambulance service.
"I know somebody is sitting in a room somewhere crying, and somebody else is sitting in a room thanking God that their loved one is getting a transplant, and that's the beautiful part of this job," Hauth said.
Hauth has flown hundreds of transplant missions, but in 2007, he received a call saying that he was suffering from a rare disease causing his liver to fail. He needed a liver transplant.
"Up until the time I was diagnosed, I very seldom went to a doctor. So to be told I basically had a terminal disease unless I received a liver transplant, that was a quite a blow," Hauth said.
He had to wait one year. Hauth managed to still fly transplant missions when strength allowed.
"Then I got a phone call one evening saying, ‘Can you be at the hospital in three hours?’ They told me that they had a donor,” Hauth said. “So, I called my boss who owns the company and told him they have a donor for me and he said well you get to the airport and you get in an airplane and fly yourself to New Orleans and we'll come get the airplane when we can.”
So many lives have depended on his piloting. On that particular flight, it was his life on the line. When he arrived at Ochsner, the team he was so used to working with, began working on him.
"I'm still on the green side of the grass and very thankful to be here," Hauth said.
About 75 percent of liver transplant patients are able to live five years after the transplant. There can be risks with organ rejection and other complications. But for the fortunate survivors, they now carry inside them the gift of a second chance.
"I live everyday like it's my last," Hauth said.
To learn more about becoming an organ donor connect with the link below:
For more on what Hepatitis C is and how it's contracted, click here: http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/c/cfaq.htm