While surge waters crashed the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast and neighborhoods boarded up windows, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) performed an orthotopic liver transplantation on a 59 year-old, U.S. Army veteran from Missouri.

With Hurricane Ike building strength in the Gulf of Mexico, it only took 30 seconds to make the decision to perform the surgery. “We could not deny a veteran the chance for a potential life-saving procedure because of a little wind and rain,” said David Berger, M.D., MEDVAMC Operative Care Line executive.

This surgery is a prime example of MEDVAMC’s dedication to providing world class health care to our nation’s heroes. Partnering with John A. Goss, M.D., chief, Division of Abdominal Transplantation at Baylor College of Medicine, the goal of the MEDVAMC Liver Transplant Center is to provide the highest level of care to the veteran population.

“We performed this transplant about 12 hours before Hurricane Ike made landfall,” said Goss. “We did not want the veteran to miss a chance to get a good liver and the staff was totally up for it.”

The seven hour surgery on Thomas Franklin, who suffered from end-stage liver disease caused by Hepatitis C, was performed by the MEDVAMC Liver Transplant Team on Friday, September 12, 2008. On Saturday morning with power outages across the city, streets blocked by flood waters, downed trees, and power lines, and rain bands and wind gusts still battering the city, Goss made his way to the MEDVAMC to check on his special patient.

“I check on all my patients after surgery,” said Goss. “The situation was no different with Mr. Franklin.”

Later that day, the storm forced the facility to go on generator power and the temperature in the building began creeping up. While coolers keep the air in the Intensive Care Units comfortable for patients, health care providers took extra precautions and transferred Franklin to an operating room with a constant 68 degree environment.

“I won the lottery. I am alive today because of this hospital, because of these wonderful doctors, nurses, and everyone else involved in the transplant program, and most importantly, because of the gift of life that was bestowed to me from an organ donor and their family,” said Franklin. “I feel incredibly blessed. I am looking forward to riding my new Harley and holding my granddaughter again.”

Goss said Franklin will now receive the standard post-transplant care regimen, including continual monitoring of liver function and immunosuppressive medication levels. The patient will require life-long follow-up at MEDVAMC’s Liver Transplant Center for routine diagnostic follow up.

“A lot of unbelievable people are doing magnificent things for my husband. I just can’t believe how the doctors, nurses, and all the staff here put their own world aside during this hurricane and focused on taking care of him,” said Franklin’s wife, Ona. “Their only concern was for our well-being and we are so very grateful.”

The VA National Transplant Program began providing solid organ transplants to veteran patients in 1961. Thomas E. Starzl, M.D. performed the VA’s first kidney transplant at the VA Medical Center in Denver. Since then, the VA National Transplant Program has expanded services to provide veteran patients with heart transplant services in 1980, bone marrow in 1982, liver in 1989, and lung in 1991. Most transplants are performed in-house in specific VA medical centers across the country.

In 1995, a national VA transplant office was established in Washington, D.C. to ensure all veterans receive equal access to transplant services and to establish a central referral center. A computerized database was developed and currently, there are more than 12,000 transplant records maintained in the national VA transplant database.

Liver transplant candidates must undergo detailed physical, laboratory and psychological evaluations to ensure proper selection and therapy. Tests are done to confirm the diagnosis of end-stage liver disease, to rule out other potential treatments, and to assess the candidate’s ability to tolerate surgery.

“The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center’s program for the treatment of liver disease is among the most advanced in the country,” said Berger. “We strive to offer our veterans the highest quality health care possible no matter what the circumstances.”