Health & Fitness

Liver transplant first of its kind in Kansas

Richard Gross was sure that his defective liver would kill him by Christmas.

He'd lost 45 pounds, he was weak, and he could no longer count on his once-strong runner's legs to support him.

Today, three weeks after a liver transplant, the Wichitan hopes for a long, healthy life.

So does the man who got Gross' liver in the state's first "domino" transplant.

Domino organ transplants are rare. Fewer than 70 domino liver transplants have been done in the United States, according to the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, where Gross' transplant took place.

Gross, a retired homebuilder, has familial amyloidosis, a rare, progressive disease in which his liver doesn't process a protein correctly, instead depositing it in organs. The protein accumulation causes nerve damage, organ failure and, eventually, death. It can't be cured; the only treatment is a transplant.

He had no idea anything was wrong until about two years ago. This past summer, unable to find a reason for his digestive problems and leg pain, he went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Gross, 66, was added to the transplant list. He and his wife, Tamara, began a life of waiting, always ready to be on their way within 30 minutes. But the call never came.

In December, Tamara Gross heard about a friend of a friend who'd had a liver transplant at the KU Hospital. The Grosses hadn't known liver transplants were done there and made contact.

He was approved for the transplant list on March 16.

Gross had been a domino transplant candidate at the Mayo Clinic, and the doctors in Kansas City got excited when he told them that, he said.

Other than its defect, Gross' liver was healthy. In someone else, it could work for 30 or 40 years before signs of amyloidosis appeared.

When the Grosses' got their call on March 26, so did Angel Morillo of Kansas City, a 56-year-old with liver cancer.

Surgery began around 3 a.m. March 27. Gross was prepped to receive the liver of a deceased patient. As Gross' liver was being removed, Morillo was in surgery to make sure his cancer hadn't spread. If it had, a fourth patient was waiting.

About 11 hours later, Gross and Morillo had new livers.

Dennis Minich, a hospital spokesman, said physicians could perform more domino transplants but that "the stars have to align" as they did in Gross' case, with the recipient's liver being in good enough shape to use in someone else.

Gross and Morillo met after the transplant, and the Grosses visited the Morillo home. They plan to get together annually.

Gross returned to Wichita on Thursday. He has blood drawn twice a week and said, "I take 412 pills a month." Those will decrease with time.

Because his immune system has been suppressed to lessen the chances of organ rejection, Gross faces some restrictions: He can't do yard work that exposes him to leaf mold or possible pathogens, he can't swim in a lake, his grandchildren must wash their hands thoroughly before they have contact with him, he can't eat rare meat or buffet food.

His sons have a 50 percent chance of having the defective gene but even if they have it, they may never get the disease. They won't be tested, because the gene's presence could jeopardize future insurance coverage, as a pre-existing condition. The only treatment is a transplant, so they'll watch for symptoms.

Had Gross noticed what he now knows were the early symptoms, he could have had a transplant earlier. As it is, physicians have said that about half the damage done may be reversible.