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Oct 07, 2014 3:50 PM

Aspen Erickson was running out of time.

At two months old, the girl was diagnosed with Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, an inherited disorder that causes liver disease. Instead of celebrating milestone moments with their baby as the months ticked by, Aspen’s parents watched as their little girl lost weight and experienced seizures.

“I kept looking at her, saying something’s wrong with her eyes,” Auchelle Daniels said of the day she watched her baby have a seizure for the first time.  “She started seizing and twisting. She was unresponsive. They had to intubate her. “

The symptoms led to a startling diagnosis for Aspen: she would need a combined liver-kidney transplant for a chance at a normal life. Earlier this year, she received the life-saving procedure at University of Utah Health Care —a gift that not only gave her a new beginning, but also marked her as the recipient of the world’s smallest liver-kidney transplant. 

Initially, doctors didn’t realize Aspen’s 6 hour and 20 minute surgery on June 29 would make history as the smallest liver-kidney transplant on record.  But recently, physicians received confirmation of the historic moment, which took place when Aspen was 16-months-old.
 

“It was incredibly rewarding. We follow these children when they’re small, and they spend most of their lives sick,” said Robin Kim, M.D., Surgical Director of Liver Transplantation at University of Utah Health Care.  “Now she’s playful. She has a bright future ahead of being able to go to school and play sports. She has her life ahead of her.”

Aspen’s case is one of several firsts to occur at University of Utah Health Care’s revamped transplant program over the past year.  Other important moments include: 

  • The first pancreas transplant at University Hospital used to cure diabetes.
  • The first kidney transplant in Utah using an organ from a donor with hepatitis C.
  • The first en bloc kidney, where two pediatric kidneys were transplanted into one adult.

Statistics released last year show that more patients —like Aspen and her family — are turning to the University of Utah for liver transplant services. While the U.’s liver transplant program is one of the youngest in the region, it has established itself as among the most successful. In 2013, the University of Utah performed the most liver transplants in the state, with 35 patients undergoing life-saving procedures at the U.

The U.’s liver transplant program’s success isn’t solely based on numbers, however. After Kim took the helm of the liver transplant program three years ago, the program has reached new heights under his leadership.  One example of the program’s positive strides is a prestigious designation from the University HealthSystem Consortium for the outcomes of patients who’ve received a liver transplant at the U.

The consortium, an alliance of more than 100 academic medical centers and nearly 250 of their affiliate hospitals (which represent more than 90 percent of the nation’s nonprofit academic medical centers) determined that in the past three years, the University of Utah’s operative death rate for its liver transplant program is zero.

The designation means that not only are more patients choosing to undergo liver transplants at University Hospital, but those who are undergoing transplants are surviving at a high rate and going on to live healthy lives after their procedures. Of the 68 liver transplant programs in the U.S. eligible for a critique by the UHC, only four, including the University of Utah, have met the criteria for an operative death rate of zero, said Kim.

The approach of team care only available at an academic medical center sets the U. apart from other liver transplant programs in the region. The U. gives patients important access to doctors from specific specialties who are able to come together to focus on the specific needs of a patient, said Kim and his colleague, Jeff Campsen, M.D., Surgical Director of Pancreas Transplantation.

The high-caliber care is appreciated by patients and their families. Aspen’s mother, Auchelle Daniels, said she’ll always be grateful to the physicians who saved her daughter’s life. Instead of spending days worrying about the toddler’s deteriorating health, Daniels now watches as a reenergized Aspen rides her tricycle outside, swings and rocks her baby dolls to sleep.

“She started to get smiley—then she started laughing. Before that point I’d never really heard her full-on laugh, said Daniels of Aspen’s life after her transplant. “She’s definitely a new little baby.”

liver transplant kidney transplant