In the U.S., nearly 14,000 people wait on the liver transplant waiting list as their health continues to deteriorate. Every year, approximately 2,800 of those patients will not receive their transplant in time because of a limited supply of deceased-donor livers.
But for eligible patients, there is another option: living-donor liver transplantation.
By pursuing living donation, patients on the liver transplant waiting list can receive a transplant sooner. Patients who receive a living-donor liver transplant do not take priority over or skip ahead of other patients on the waiting list, but rather, are able to get out of line because they have identified a suitable living donor, such as a family member or friend.
To understand this, we’ll have to learn more about how the waiting list works and what living donor transplantation offers.
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How Does the Waiting List Work?
Although people often imagine the liver transplant waiting list as one big national line, it’s more like a series of regional pools.
The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) breaks up the national waiting list into 11 regions, which usually include several states and many hospital systems. For instance, UNOS Region 2 includes Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
On these regional lists, patients are prioritized by their Model for End-stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, assigned by a doctor and meant to reflect their likelihood of death within a three-month period. The higher your MELD score, the higher chance you will receive a deceased-donor liver when it becomes available.
But a patient shares that MELD score with many other patients in each region and even at each hospital. Besides MELD, many other factors determine your ability to receive a deceased-donor liver transplant. To learn more, read “Understanding the Liver Transplant Waiting List.”
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What Is Living-Donor Liver Transplantation?
During a living-donor liver transplantation, a surgeon removes a portion of a healthy person’s liver and transplants it into a patient with end-stage liver disease. This transplant is made possible by the liver’s unique ability to regenerate or regrow. Although recovery time may vary, the livers of both the donor and the recipient will regenerate in eight to 10 weeks.
Before this surgery can take place, a patient with liver disease must identify a person willing to donate a portion of their liver. The patient shares their story with as many people as possible until they find a potential donor. They often do this with the help of a Champion, a friend or family member who devotes their time to helping the patient find a living donor, so that the patient can rest.
When a living donor decides to donate, they give a selfless gift that saves not only their family member, friend, or acquaintance with liver disease, but also could impact the entire transplant community by helping to reduce the organ shortage.
How a Living Donor Saves Lives
By donating a portion of their liver, a living donor helps to reduce demand for deceased-donor livers.
Imagine a patient named John standing and waiting patiently with a group of other patients, all of whom need a liver transplant and have only a small chance of getting a deceased-donor organ in time. Each patient’s chance of getting a liver is lower if more people stand in the pool. But John steps out of that pool by identifying a suitable living donor, not only saving his own life but also increasing every remaining patient’s chance to receive a deceased-donor liver.
At UPMC, our mission is to raise awareness of living donation, and we believe that a combination of living donors and deceased donors could significantly reduce, and possibly eliminate, the wait time for every patient on the liver transplant waiting list.
We’re dedicated to educating the community about living donation so that patients with end-stage liver disease have increased access to transplantation.
That’s why we discuss living-donor liver transplantation with every patient suffering from end-stage liver disease.
To learn more, visit LifeChangingLiver.com.
About Transplant Services
Established in 1981, UPMC Transplant Services is one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, including liver, kidney, pancreas, single and double lung, heart, and more. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and have a long history of developing new antirejection therapies—so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions.