UC Davis Health's new liver transplant program is only such program in California north of San Francisco
Juan Velasco is enjoying a new chapter of his life in Rio Dell, in Northern California’s Humboldt County.
This past summer, after working 22 years as a water distribution operator for the City of Eureka, Velasco had finally retired. However, within a few weeks he began experiencing intense pain in his abdomen. Soon after, his stomach and legs began to swell with fluid.
“His legs were so swollen he looked like an elephant,” Velasco’s wife Pia commented.
After some coaxing from his wife and four children, Velasco went to the emergency room in Eureka. After going through several tests, he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.
Velasco spent the next two weeks in the hospital receiving medications to prevent further liver damage and reduce the fluid in his legs and abdomen. Despite the treatment, doctors shared with him that his liver was already so severely damaged, a liver transplant was his only treatment option and unfortunately, they did not have the resources or specialists to provide further treatment.
“They told me that I would need to go all the way to the Bay Area for a liver transplant,” recalled Velasco. “So, they sent me home with my medications and contacts to follow up with. I don’t blame them at all –— they are a small hospital, and they did everything they could to help me.”
Searching for access to a transplant
After returning home, Velasco’s condition continued to deteriorate. The swelling in his stomach and legs returned. He began to experience yellowing of his skin and the whites of his eyes. He had constant pain in his abdomen.
As Velasco’s family investigated their options for a transplant, a friend told them that UC Davis Health had just started a liver transplant program.
“When we heard UC Davis was an option, we just jumped in the car and went to their emergency room,” said Velasco. “All my children live in the Sacramento area, and it was a lot less travel for us.”
While our program is new, our medical, surgical, and transplant teams are very experienced. We are excited to expand our ability to care for adults with liver disease and provide this resource to patients throughout Northern California.”
UC Davis Health formed its new adult liver transplant program this past July to address the issue of transplant access for patients awaiting a liver transplant.
“To meet the health care needs of our community, we made an institutional commitment to develop a viable liver transplant program,” said Sophoclis Alexopoulos, medical director for the UC Davis Transplant Center. “While our program is new, our medical, surgical, and transplant teams are very experienced. We are excited to expand our ability to care for adults with liver disease and provide this resource to patients throughout Northern California.”
Surprise liver transplant
After arriving at UC Davis Medical Center, Velasco was admitted and added to the national organ donor registry.
According to the U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration, livers are the second-most awaited organ transplant with over 10,500 people on the waiting list in 2023.
The waiting period for a liver transplant from a deceased donor can last up to five years, according to the National Institutes of Health.
However, after just one week in the hospital, doctors told Velasco they had a new liver for him.
“I was shocked that I was able to receive a liver so fast,” said Velasco. “It brought me tears of joy.”
Within 24 hours of receiving the news, UC Davis Health surgeons performed successful liver transplant surgery on Velasco, giving him a second chance at life.
“The transplant went smoothly, the new liver started working right away, and the patient recovered without any surgical complications,” said Alexopoulos, who performed Velasco's procedure. “Liver transplantation is one of the most complex abdominal operations and heavily relies on a specialized team for good outcomes. Our dedicated transplant team is second to none and has been instrumental to the success of our program so far.”
I now understand that being an organ donor can impact so many people.”
Life following liver transplant surgery
Following his transplant surgery, Velasco spent a week at UC Davis Medical Center. He stayed an additional few weeks in Sacramento with his son so he could make his follow-up appointments. He is now home in Rio Dell enjoying his retirement.
Velasco knows he was incredibly lucky to get his new liver, and that he was in the right place at the right time. He still can’t believe he learned that a donor organ was available after being on the transplant list for just a week.
“I feel so grateful to whoever donated the liver and that they decided to be a donor,” said Velasco. “I now understand that being an organ donor can impact so many people.”
About the UC Davis Health Transplant Center
Established in 1985, the UC Davis Transplant Center has been a leader in organ transplantation for decades. Recently, the center was selected as a model hospital by UNOS and was also chosen to guide national best practices for transplant by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
The liver transplant program is approved by the United Network for Organ Sharing, the agency that manages the nation’s organ transplant system. The program serves patients located in the 33 counties UC Davis Health covers. This includes a 65,000-square-mile area north to the Oregon border and east to Nevada.