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USC transplant team makes possible a life-saving gift to a stranger

by Paul Dingsdale

transplant surgeon Rick Selby (far left) watches as his patients (seated, left to right) Ray Mu�oz and Curt Bludworth explain at a press conference that they had never met before the operation

Photos: Jon Nalick

The strangest thing about Curt Bludworth’s recent 5-hour-plus surgery is not that he was in perfect health, or even that doctors at USC University Hospital removed more than half his liver for transplantation into a desperately ill man.

It is that Bludworth didn’t know the man–and didnt’ even meet him until after the life-saving surgery.

Stories of an altruistic donor coming forward after seeing a desperate plea for help on the local news are rare, but not unknown. What is different about this case, however, is the fact that the donor decided to come forward and offer part of his healthy liver for transplant to whoever might need it. As simple as that.

    Bludworth, 33, finally met the transplant recipient, Ray Muñoz, 53, on Wednesday May 17. “It was an amazing moment,” said Bludworth. “I just said, “How is my liver treating you?'”

    But why undergo the risks of major surgery to help a complete stranger?

    “My motives were pure,” Bludworth, said Friday, May 19 at a press conference at USC University Hospital. Bludworth said he wasn’t looking for money or fame, he just wanted to do something good. “I’m just a lover of life,” he said.

    “I couldn’t be happier in my life at the moment,” said Bludworth. “I have an awesome life and a great job. So when I read an article in the paper about the remarkable advances in transplant technology and the desperate shortage of donor organs, I thought, “Why not?’ If I could help someone else get their life back on track and be as happy as I am, then that’s great.”

    And so began Bludworth’s long quest: the search for a facility and a doctor with whom he felt comfortable and the battery of medical and psychiatric tests necessary before the green light could be given. It is a process Bludworth likes to call “the dance.”

    An Internet search of the facilities performing live-donor liver transplants led him to USC’s University Hospital and transplant surgeon Rick Selby. “Dr. Selby was quick to respond to my query, and I instantly developed a level of trust with him,” said Bludworth. “He’s been great. He never pushed me, and gave me every chance to bow out.”

    But bow out he didn’t, and on May 12th–in a marathon 11-hour double operation at University Hospital–surgeons Selby, Nicolas Jabbour, Rod Mateo and Yuri Genyk removed approximately 60 per cent of Bludworth’s liver and transplanted it into East Los Angeles security officer Muñoz. Both are well on the way to a full recovery, and the doctors said both the transplanted liver and the 40 percent that remains inside Bludworth will grow to full size in a matter of weeks.

    Muñoz–suffering the effects of hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver–was on the waiting list for a cadaveric organ when the news came through that a mystery donor had stepped forward. “We couldn’t believe it at first,” said Muñoz’s wife, Carmen. “You could see Ray was beginning to get depressed before we heard about the donation. And all of a sudden he was filled with hope.”

    Without a transplant, Muñoz was not expected to make it through the year. His weight had dropped from 190 pounds to 120 pounds and he was deteriorating fast, doctors said.

    Joined at the press conference by his wife, three grandchildren and other family members, Muñoz said he was excited to be given a fresh start. He said he intends to make the best of his new opportunity and spend as much time as possible enjoying his family.

    Asked how he felt about Bludworth and his unusual “gift,” Muñoz had a simple answer: “He’s my angel.”

    Upon his return home to Atlanta, Bludworth said he would like to start a foundation to help others wanting to follow his example. Muñoz’s health insurance covered the cost of the surgeries on both men, but Bludworth had to pay his own travel expenses. Bludworth said his foundation would help defer such costs for future donors.

    Bludworth is a human relations official with a healthcare food services company, which provides cafeteria staffing for hospitals in the South.

    Anonymous donation is perhaps the most extreme example of an emerging trend in organ transplants: the growing use of living donors, related or unrelated. The vast majority of organ transplants continue to come from cadavers, but the widening gap between supply and demand for transplantable organs means that the issue of live donor organs is increasingly coming to the fore.

    One of the issues, quite naturally, is the risk. With any major surgery there’s a risk, and the stakes are particularly high for a liver donor. Unlike kidney donors, for example, liver donors have no backup treatment (no dialysis) if their remaining organ fails. That’s why Bludworth was subjected to a barrage of medical and psychiatric tests. “They tried just about everything to scare me off,” said Bludworth. “That’s their job, I guess–to make sure I knew precisely what I was doing. And believe me, I was all too aware.”

    And when Bludworth told family and friends he was giving up half his liver to a stranger, some questioned his judgment. “But they’re very supportive now. They came to realize that this was something I felt passionately about.”

USC transplant team makes possible a life-saving gift to a stranger

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