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If you need a new liver because you have cancer, a long-term infection with hepatitis C, or some other liver problem, your doctor may suggest a living-donor transplant. You won't have to wait until a liver is ready for you from a donor who's died. Instead, you get your new organ from a healthy, living person -- maybe even someone you know.

There's another important way that living-donor surgery differs from a traditional transplant. In this procedure, a surgeon removes only a part of the donor's liver. When it's placed in your body, it will grow into a normal size in 6 to 8 weeks. The donor's liver grows back in the same amount of time, too.  

Advantages

There are some key reasons you might want this type of transplant instead of getting a liver from a donor who has died:

  • The waiting time for a new organ is much shorter.
  • Recovery is quicker.
  • The transplant can sometimes be done early enough in your disease so that you can avoid serious liver disease. And when you're healthier, the surgery is easier to do.
  • Your body is less likely to reject your new liver, especially if the donor is your relative.
  • The new liver usually lasts longer.
  • You can schedule the surgery for a time that's good for you and the donor.

Your chances of surviving are better, partly because the donated liver comes from someone who is healthy. Your odds of success are also higher because the liver gets transplanted within minutes of being removed from the donor, rather than hours later.

If you're the one donating part of a liver, you'll get the satisfaction of knowing you have saved someone's life. And your own health won't be affected. You should live just as long and just as well as you would have without the surgery.

How the Surgery Works

If you're getting a new liver, you and the donor usually check into the hospital the afternoon or evening before the surgery. Doctors will tell you whether and what you can eat or drink and for how long before the operation.

You and the donor will have surgery at the same time in side-by-side operating rooms. You'll each have your own surgical team.

In one room, a surgeon removes the portion of the donor's healthy liver. In the second room, another surgeon removes your sick liver. 

Whether you are getting the new liver or you're a donor, you don't have to worry about feeling any pain during the surgery. You'll get general anesthesia during the procedure, which means you'll be asleep.

The surgeon will make a large cut on your belly. If you are the donor, doctors will often remove your gallbladder first because it's attached to the right side of your liver. The next step is to disconnect the liver from the veins and arteries that supply it with blood.

The surgeon will then divide the liver into two. If the transplant is for an adult, he'll usually remove the right part of the liver because it's bigger than the left. Sometimes the left part is used if the person who will be getting it weighs less than about 132 pounds.

If it's a child's transplant, the surgeon will cut out the smaller left side.

Doctors take the piece of healthy liver right away to the operating room with the person getting the new liver. First, they attach blood vessels, then they connect the bile ducts. Finally, doctors sew or staple the cut closed and may put in a drain in to get rid of unwanted fluids. As soon as it's in place, your new liver starts to grow back.

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