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Sharing your liver with a stranger

CNN's Rhonda Rowland reports only a handful of centers in the United States do living donor liver transplants.
Windows Media 28K 80K

July 21, 1999
Web posted at: 3:50 p.m. EDT (1950 GMT)

In this story:

Decided to donate in a heartbeat

Just days to find a liver donor

Donor and patient meet

Risks for living liver donors

Procedure raises ethical questions


From Medical Correspondent Rhonda Rowland

RICHMOND, Virginia (CNN) -- How far would you go to help another person? What if that person would die within days if they didn't get a new liver? If it was your child or spouse or best friend, you might do almost anything. But what if it was someone you had never met?

One man says he never thought twice about giving up part of his liver to save a stranger.

Ken Schuler is a husband, a father, an artist and now, a "life preserver."

Decided to donate in a heartbeat

Schuler is believed to be the first person to step forward and donate part of his liver to a stranger. He decided to help after hearing a man pleading for help to save his daughter's life.

"They said they were looking for a B positive donor, which that's what I am," Schuler said. "As soon as I heard that, I looked at my wife and said, 'I would do that in a heartbeat.'" Schuler got up and made the phone call.

Just days to find a liver donor

Debbie Parker's liver had been destroyed by hepatitis C. The 39-year-old wife and mother of three needed a liver transplant. Without one, she would die within days.

Because the list for a liver from a cadaver was so long, doctors suggested a new, experimental option: finding a living donor willing to give Parker a piece of his or her liver.

Parker said when Schuler called to offer part of his liver, she didn't know how to thank him.

"I talked to him the next day, and he had such a calming voice," Parker said. "I didn't know what to say. 'Thank you' isn't the right word."

Parker said Schuler told her she didn't have to say anything; it was just something he wanted to do. The two met at the hospital.

Donor and patient meet

"We met in the waiting room, and we were both having blood work done," Schuler said. "And that was probably one of the best days of my life."

Parker said the meeting brought tears from onlookers.

"I tapped him on the shoulder and said, 'Are you Ken Schuler?' He said, 'Yes, I am.' And I said, 'I'm Debbie Parker.' And we just embraced right there, and the whole waiting room started crying."

Schuler also remembered the emotion of that day.

"I was trying to save somebody's life, and she's wanting me to save her life," Schuler said. "When somebody hugs you around the neck like that, it still gets to me, thinking about it."

Risks for living liver donors

"It is a highly risky operation," said Dr. Amadeo Marcos with the Medical College of Virginia.

Marcos did the first unrelated living-donor liver transplant a year ago and has done 27 since then. Most have been between husbands and wives.

"We were forced to do this technique because we didn't have enough livers for our own list, and our patients were dying," Marcos said.

Procedure raises ethical questions

Only a handful of centers in the United States are doing living donor liver transplants in adults. If the option becomes more widely used, doctors say it could make a significant dent in the organ shortage.

But ethically, can you ask someone to undertake the risk of donating part of his or her liver? Some doctors think you can.

"I don't think it's unethical to have a wife volunteer to have a piece of her liver given to her child or her husband," said Dr. Arthur Caplan with the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "I think it's even ethical to do for friends."

But other doctors are less certain.

"You are operating on a healthy person who does not have anything wrong with them," said Dr. Thomas Heffron with Emory and Egleston-Scottish Rite Transplant Programs. "I think we should always remember that."

But Schuler said he wasn't worried about the risks of dying or becoming disabled by surgery. And a week after giving part of his liver to Parker, his liver regenerated and grew back to its original size.

"It's the best thing, you know, I've ever done," Schuler said. "It gives you a feeling that you can't describe."

"He's my life preserver," Parker said. "He doesn't want me to call him a hero, so I call him a life preserver."

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