May 8, 2009

Nashville VA transplant program reaches milestone

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Transplant patient Thomas Miller, center, is examined by T. Mark Earl, M.D., left and Kelly Wright, M.D. (photo by Joe Howell)

Nashville VA transplant program reaches milestone

Receiving a life-saving transplant typically generates enough excitement all on its own. But being the 300th liver transplant for the Nashville Veterans Administration program really made Greenwood, Indiana, resident Thomas Miller's transplant that more special.

“We are really, really blessed,” said Sheila Miller, days after her husband's transplant. “He was getting sicker and sicker and we were getting scared that he would be too sick for the transplant. But that day finally came.

“Once he was OK after surgery, they told me about the record and it was exciting,” she said. “There are just so many emotions leading up to this point, and having a little celebration afterwards really helped. We are just happy to be a part of spreading the word about the need for donors.”

Miller, 58, was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 2000. Doctors placed him on the waiting list in February. The first call for a liver came on April 9, but Miller was too sick for transplant. He was later transferred from the Indianapolis VA to Nashville so that doctors could closely monitor him. As he was recouping, a second liver became available.

The Nashville VA was the third VA center in the country contracted to perform transplants for veterans, an arrangement worked out by the first director of the liver transplant program, C. Wright Pinson, M.D., associate vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs. There are now five, providing a geographic distribution, said Pinson.

“At the time, Nashville represented an important addition to the VA transplant system, providing services for the middle of the country. Looking back, it was wonderful to think about the impact our program has had on so many of our nation's veterans. At the same time, the VA has been a key piece of Vanderbilt's program development,” Pinson said.

“We've been transplanting veterans since 1993,” said Joseph Awad, M.D., director of the VA Liver Transplant Program. “We have a very good track record and we have served a lot of veterans. The VA system is responsible for about one-third of the total liver transplants done at Vanderbilt. It feels good to have such an impact on a community and be an important part of the overall transplant program.”

Kelly Wright, M.D., chief of the Division of Hepatobiliary Surgery and Liver Transplantation at Vanderbilt, agrees that the partnership with the VA is a vital piece of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center.

“We are very pleased to be in a collaborative relationship with the VA, providing care for our veterans,” said Wright. “But we would not be successful without the dedicated work of the medical director and his team.”

Wright said Miller's transplant was successful and expects the patient to do very well. Sunil Geevarghese, M.D., assistant professor of Surgery at Vanderbilt, was also a part of the milestone transplant team.

Miller was discharged to a local guest house after his transplant on April 19.

“My liver is working and it feels good,” said Miller.

“I am so thankful. All my hopes on living and a future were based on someone donating a liver. It's hard that someone else had to die so I could live.

“But now I get to be Papa again to our 4-year-old son. I have missed being able to play with him. I am ready to enjoy my family. I want to do it all and now I can.”