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It might sound like a bizarre science-fiction plot, but for people enduring the excruciatingly long wait for a liver transplant, sharing an organ with a stranger is a very real possibility.
The procedure is called "split-liver transplantation" and it's actually fairly common, at least when one recipient is an adult and the other is a child. The liver has an amazing ability to regenerate itself. Within six to eight weeks, a partial liver can regrow to nearly its original size. Split-liver transplants are less commonly performed when the recipients are both adults, as this requires three separate medical teams, a high-quality donor liver, and patients who are roughly the same size and have similar degrees of disease progression.
However, adult-only split-liver transplantation does happen, such as in the case of Maria Contreras and Monica Davis. Contreras, 53, and Davis, 59, both grandmothers living in Ohio, were suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and languishing on the transplant list when it turned out that they were good candidates to become "split-liver sisters," as they call themselves. The transplants took place simultaneously in July 2020, and the two women were finally able to meet, along with their respective surgeons, in April 2022. Although split-liver transplantation carries additional risks, both women have recovered well and are now able to lead fairly normal lives.
- There are more than 100,000 Americans waiting for a vital organ transplant. Around 17 of them die every day.
- A transplant is the only treatment for end-stage liver disease.
- Split-liver transplantation, which was pioneered in Germany in the 1980s, usually involves an adult receiving 80% of the donor liver, while a child receives 20%. With the highly unusual case of the "split-liver sisters," Contreras received 40% and Davis received 60%.