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Recipient in rare paired living liver donation thanks "angel" donor

Muhammad Khan poses with Kelly Bryan at Toronto General Hospital, on Tuesday April, 16, 2019. Khan received a liver donation from Bryan, who donated 70 per cent of her liver, in what is believed to be North America's first paired living liver donation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — One of the recipients of what’s believed to be North America’s first paired living liver donation is calling the stranger who saved his life “an angel.”

Fifty-four-year-old Muhammad Khan of Mississauga, Ont., is sharing his gratitude nearly one year after 38-year-old Kelly Bryan of Peterborough, Ont., gave him more than half of her liver.

In turn, Khan’s wife, Hina, donated more than half of her liver to another stranger.

The feat was revealed at Toronto General Hospital where patients and doctors touted the potential that the rare procedure has to save lives.

Officials with the University Health Network Transplant Program say the four simultaneous surgeries took place July 9, 2018 and took 12 hours, four operating rooms and 28 staff and surgeons.

About 100 staff and doctors looked after the pairs before, during and after the surgeries.

A year later, all four patients are doing well, with Khan especially grateful for Bryan’s generosity.

Khan was diagnosed with non-alcoholic liver cirrhosis in 2017, and he suspects he would not have survived if Bryan had not come forward.

“Kelly was an angel to me, I think, honestly,” Khan said Tuesday as details of the surgeries were made public for the first time.

“The way she came up with this organ donation, it is the biggest gift to me that I could have ever received, someone saving my life that I never knew of.”

The transplant program says paired liver exchanges have been performed in Korea and Hong Kong, but there are no published reports of them being done in Europe or North America.

The feat requires incredible resources, notes UHN transplant surgeon Dr. David Grant, who described the many weeks of planning as akin to “training for a marathon.”

But he hopes the UHN’s success can spur future swaps and save more lives.

“Very few institutions have the capacity to staff four operating rooms to do a surgery like this,” notes Grant, who served as Bryan’s surgeon during the procedure. “And of course there still aren’t that many people that step forward to be an anonymous donor.”

It was all possible because of Bryan, whose blood type is the rare universal 0-negative, allowing her to donate blood to anyone. 

Hina was not a match for her husband, so she was paired by the medical team with another, compatible recipient. That person chose to remain private.

Bryan ended up experiencing complications from her surgery — transient intestinal blockage that required her to stay in hospital longer than expected. But she returned to work as a paramedic three months after her operation and says she has no regrets.

“The risks and the recovery are hardly even a sacrifice when it comes to saving someone’s life,” says Bryan.

“And I think it’s important that people know that living donation is a possibility; it’s not just deceased organs that people receive and the need for it is so great. There are so many people dying on the waiting list and also people do so much better from living donation than deceased donation, the recovery is easier and there’s less complications for the recipients.”

Grant notes that an anonymous living donor — someone who chooses to donate to a recipient they don’t know — can help two dying patients, by effectively creating two new compatible pairs. It also allows those remaining on the deceased donors’ list to move up two places.

“That’s why it is so important to shout out to the world how life-changing and important this gift is,” says Grant, noting that 50 to 100 people a year die while waiting for a liver transplant in Ontario.

Almost 300 people are on the waiting list for a liver in Ontario.

Similar paired exchanges involving kidneys have been performed for 15 years, but liver exchanges are far more rare, and riskier.

“Anything we can do to reduce that waiting list is extraordinarily important,” says Grant.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press