County Pulse

County Pulse: Many wait for organ transplants

kcarlson@modbee.comApril 11, 2014 

The California Transplant Donor Network cites a national statistic that 18 people who need organ transplants die every day.

Alice Fuentes of Turlock said she believes her husband, Joe, would have suffered that fate. But a gift of life came from their 31-year-old son, Marcus, who donated part of his liver in a transplant a week ago at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center.

Marcus Fuentes made the promise to his father on Thanksgiving Day after Joe had waited two years for a donor organ. Marcus was a wrestler and football player in high school and his natural health made him a good living-donor candidate, his mother said. He committed after a heartfelt discussion with his wife, Marlena.

The couple have four children, and the construction worker will need to take time off from work during his recovery. “It was an amazing thing that (Marcus) did,” Alice Fuentes said. “The surgeons told him there was a risk of death. He still wanted to save his father’s life.”

With living-donor liver transplants, the donor’s remaining liver grows back to normal size within eight weeks. While organ transplants are commonplace, those involving liver tissue donated by a live adult are not done often. The procedures are a risk for the donor and demanding for the surgeons. When I wrote about a living-donor transplant featuring a father and son from Manteca in 2002, the death of an East Coast donor was reported the next day.

An NBC News report on the transplants last year cited a 2012 paper that placed the risk at 1.7 deaths per 1,000 donors.

“My brother was treated like a celebrity among the doctors at UCSF for his heroic actions,” Carlos Fuentes said in an email.

According to the donor network, more than 15,700 people are waiting for liver transplants in the U.S., including about 3,000 in California, but donated organs will become available for maybe a third of them this year. The need for kidneys is far greater – more than 122,000 patients are on waiting lists.

Joe Fuentes worked for the city of Turlock for more than 30 years and was diagnosed with severe liver disease in 2010. Alice said the cause might have been a strong medication taken for a pituitary tumor or exposure to a pathogen at the wastewater plant where he worked.

Fuentes spent hours at hospitals having fluids drained or receiving infusions, Alice said. Still, her seriously ill husband was far down on the priority list for cadaver organs, which are given to patients who are close to death’s door.

“Joe was a ‘15,’ and you can stay there for many years,” Alice said. “I don’t think he would have lived. It was an amazing thing what my son did.”

Marcus Fuentes has returned home and Joe Fuentes has not had complications thus far, the family said. Information about the California Transplant Donor Network is available at www.ctdn.org.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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