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Spring 1998
To Save Two Lives
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Dr. Ronald W. Busuttil and the UCLA liver transplant team are pioneering a procedure that makes the sickest of the sick whole again

By Mona Gable
Photography by Catherine Ledner

The helicopter appears in the night like a tiny star, bringing life. Within minutes, it sweeps the eastern sky and lands on the roof of UCLA Medical Center, stirring up great gusts of wind. A moment later, a handful of figures run out from under the churning blades. One carries a red and white cooler with the words “Human Organ” boldly printed on it. Near him, rubbing his bare arms and walking at a fast clip, is Dr. John Goss, a member of UCLA’s liver transplant team. The boyish-looking surgeon has on surgical scrubs and tennis shoes but no coat. “It was cold in there,” he says, looking back at the ’copter, which had ferried him and his colleagues from a hospital in Riverside.

Goss had flown to Riverside in response to a call from [an agency that coordinates organ donations for hospitals in the Southern California region.] A liver had become available. At 1 p.m., the 35-year-old surgeon had removed the liver of a brain-dead, 26-year-old man, dissecting it in two in an innovative “split-liver” procedure. Goss did not know the young man’s name or the barest outlines of his life. But he knew that the deceased’s liver would go to save two lives.

As Goss squeezes into a hospital elevator, it is 7:35 p.m. In a few moments, he will join Dr. Ronald W. Busuttil in UCLA’s cavernous O.R., where Busuttil has been absorbed for several hours in surgery to remove a diseased liver. Within a few hours, Goss will step in and finish the complex surgery, using one piece of the donor liver he’d recovered. Meanwhile, the other piece will be used in a second transplant operation going on simultaneously next door. Before the night is through, if both operations go well, one human being will be delivered from near-death, another from a childhood scarred by chronic illness.


© 2005 The Regents of the University of California