CLEVELAND – More than 10,000 people are waiting for a lifesaving liver transplant.
The liver is one of the only organs that can be donated from a living person, and now, a new technique is making it easier than ever before to give the gift of life.
Nikko Velazquez, 29, watched helplessly as his girlfriend’s father, Abraham Aviv, 66, experienced end stage liver disease.
“The last week of June, I was like, okay, time’s running out,” said Velazquez. “I was like, enough is enough; we’ve got to do this.”
When family members didn’t match for a liver transplant, Velazquez called Cleveland Clinic to be tested as a living donor. Then, in late July, he received a call he’ll never forget.
“They’re like, ‘You’re a match!’” said Velazquez. “That was unbelievable.”
“I was so scared and nervous,” said Shiri Aviv, Abraham’s daughter and Velazquez’s girlfriend. “But, I was so happy because I just couldn’t believe my dad is going to have a new liver and be healthy again.”
Being young and in good shape, Velazquez was a candidate for a purely laparoscopic procedure.
On August 19, 2019 doctors used special surgical tools and a camera to remove one third of his liver.
“We put about five half-inch sized holes, and we do the whole procedure through those small little incisions,” said Choon Hyuck David Kwon, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Laparoscopic Liver Surgery at Cleveland Clinic. “To take the organ out, we put a five inch incision, or less, right above the pelvic area.”
Smaller incisions mean a quicker recovery, less pain, and fewer complications.
“I felt like myself, probably fully, like I didn’t even have surgery, about two weeks later,” said Velazquez.
Dr. Kwon said most liver donors who undergo this type of surgery recover twice as fast and are back to work in about one month, compared to two, or three, months with a traditional open procedure.
“The most important aspect of a living donor liver transplant program is the safety of the donor,” said Dr. Kwon. “We have strict selection criteria and standards in place to determine the best surgical approach for a given living donor – whether it is minimally invasive or open surgery. With the laparoscopic technique, the donor gets the benefits of minimally invasive surgery, resulting in shorter postoperative recovery time, less pain, better cosmetic results, and lower risk of an incisional hernia.”
Velazquez’s liver regenerated back to its full size 6-8 weeks after surgery, and Aviv’s transplant was a success.
“Little by little, I get stronger,” said Abraham Aviv.” I feel like it’s me, back again, to normal.”
Dr. Kwon said the technique makes donating a portion of the liver safer and easier, and Velazquez hopes it encourages others to donate.
“One in five people expire on the list, that’s 20 percent of people dying on that list,” Velazquez said. “Don’t wait, if you feel that you’re a match, do it.”