Liver transplant recipients reunite with donor families & medical team to mark LDS Hospital Liver Transplant Program's 20th anniversary

Jess Gomez

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Salt Lake City — Lyle Thacker, Utah's first-ever liver transplant recipient, joined with dozens of other liver transplant recipients, family members of deceased donors and medical staff of Intermountain Healthcare's LDS Hospital on Tuesday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the LDS Hospital liver transplant program.

Thacker was near death when he became the first patient in the Intermountain West to receive a liver transplant in March 1986 at LDS Hospital - the first medical center in the area to perform the procedure. Since then, the 74-year-old Pleasant Grove man has enjoyed 20 years of high-quality life with his family.

Hope for Life. "I was so sick and given such a short time to live that I had no hesitation at all to get the transplant," says the retired elementary school principal. "I'm so grateful to have had my life saved by someone who was willing to donate such a special gift and grateful to the wonderful transplant team at LDS Hospital."

In the 20 years since Thacker's historic transplant, the LDS Hospital liver transplant team has performed 560 liver transplants (and counting...) and has achieved one of the top survival rates in the nation.

"We've seen a lot of advancement in transplant surgery and the recovery process for patients has improved significantly. Unfortunately, the one constant that remains the same is the severe shortage of donor livers that are available for patients in dire need," says LeGrand Belnap, M.D., medical director of transplantation services at LDS Hospital.

Dr. Belnap, who along with pioneering transplant surgeon Larry Stevens, M.D., performed the first transplant on Thacker, says LDS Hospital has developed a worldwide reputation for excellence in liver transplantation.

"This reunion is a tribute to all the caregivers and early visionaries, such as Dr. Stevens, who have played such a vital role in making the liver transplant program at LDS Hospital one of the best in the world,' he says.

Growing Need for Donors. The growing organ shortage in the United States has become one of the nation's most pressing public health issues. More than 90,000 people in the nation are currently waiting for an organ transplant. The U.S. is far from maximizing its supply of available organs from deceased donors. In recent years, only 6,617 (about 46 percent) of an estimated 14,000 potential donors donated organs. As a result, an average of 17 people on the transplant waiting list die each day.

"One organ donor can save the lives of nine people," says Dr. Belnap. "If just one person donates their organs and tissues, they can save or enhance the lives of over 50 people. That's quite a legacy to leave behind."

Liver transplantation surgery is one of the most technically difficult transplant surgeries performed because of the complexity of the liver and the number of connections to other organs in the digestive system, says Dr. Belnap. "These procedures used to take between 10 and 14 hours. Today most transplant surgeries are in the range of five to eight hours, so it has improved considerably."

Tuesday's emotional reunion for LDS Hospital's former patients and the program's medical staff, particularly Terry Box, M.D., medical director of the liver transplant program, and himself a recipient of a liver transplant.

"Today, for me, I am overwhelmed by emotion. I had no idea how much this would affect me," he said. "I feel particularly bonded because of your trust in me and my experience with you."

In Utah, residents can find information about organ donation and register to become donors online at


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