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Liver transplant program marks 30th anniversary

May. 4, 2022, 2:46 PM


by Matt Batcheldor

Julie Damon thinks back on the three decades since she became the first person to receive a liver transplant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center — eight grandchildren, visits around the world and recently celebrating a 56th wedding anniversary with her husband, Bill.

In 1991, Julie Damon became the first person to receive a liver transplant at VUMC.
In 1991, Julie Damon became the first person to receive a liver transplant at VUMC. (John Russell)

“I’ve just had many blessings coming my way,” said Damon, now 76. Without that transplant, “life would’ve been so different for all of these people.”

In 1991, Damon was a 45-year-old mother of two at death’s door. She was at Vanderbilt with end-stage liver failure, needed a transplant, and the transplant surgeon she needed (C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, now Deputy CEO and Chief Health System Officer) was heading out of town for a meeting.

What happened next was a succession of miracles, Damon said. Pinson came back and Vanderbilt and Tennessee Donor Services worked to find a liver for her, the first one ever transplanted at Vanderbilt. Pinson, along with Kelly Wright Jr., MD, performed the transplant surgery, and it was a success.

Months after Damon became the first adult liver transplant patient at Vanderbilt, 14-year-old Brian Aldridge from Tupelo, Mississippi, received the first pediatric liver transplant at VUMC.

This May, the Vanderbilt Transplant Center is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its first liver transplant, a milestone it reached in 2021. In recent years, the Medical Center has celebrated other milestones — the first heart/liver transplant in 2017 and the launch of the modern living donor liver transplant program in 2019. The latter allows living donors to donate part of their livers, which regenerate in both donor and recipient.

Through 2021, VUMC has performed 2,563 adult and pediatric liver transplants.

Seth Karp, MD, speaks at Monday’s 30th anniversary celebration of Vanderbilt’s liver transplant program.
Seth Karp, MD, speaks at Monday’s 30th anniversary celebration of Vanderbilt’s liver transplant program. (photo by Donn Jones)

“While the sheer number of transplants is remarkable, the Transplant Center is about people helping people — one patient at a time,” Pinson said. “If you participate in some facet of liver transplantation, you know that each transplant takes a village — a team of physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, administrative staff, donor services and family members working together. And the Transplant Center helps so many because of the generosity of organ donors — those giving the ultimate gift of life. Thank you all for being part of the Liver Transplant program’s evolution and success.”

Seth Karp, MD, H. William Scott Jr. Professor, chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center, said, “The extraordinary collaboration and collegiality at Vanderbilt are the bedrock of the success of the transplant programs. Each member plays an indispensable role in the success of each patient, and it is wonderful to be part of a group of such dedicated and caring professionals.”

It all started with Damon. She recounts the story she has told so many times. She was working as a Spanish teacher at Franklin High School in Williamson County and was in excellent physical condition. Her routine was to swim 56 lengths of the pool at the YMCA, teach school, then walk 1-3 miles with friends after school.

One day she was walking after school and she felt extremely fatigued, which was very unusual. She thought she had the flu. “And it turns out that it was my liver that was failing,” she said. That’s how she ended up in critical condition at Vanderbilt.

“At the time my donor liver came in, I met Dr. Pinson in the hospital just before I went into a coma, and I said to him, I can remember this as clear as yesterday, ‘Do not leave me a vegetable.’ And he said to me, ‘I will take care of you.’”

The next thing Damon remembers is after the transplant, seeing a nurse adjusting her pillow. “My first thought was, I’m in heaven. This is an angel.”

Damon soon realized she was still on earth. She said her transplant was incredibly successful. She and her husband often travel to see their children around the country, and she’s now been to 71 countries. Her next trip is planned for June, taking a river cruise from the Swiss Alps to Paris with her son and his wife.

“Nobody has been able to enjoy life more than I have,” she said. “I’ve just had many blessings coming my way.”

She has often thought about her organ donor, whom she never met.

“I take medicine every day still and every time I take my medicine I think about my transplant and how fortunate I am,” she said. “That is a reminder of the gift that I have.”

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