Extraordinary People: The Man Who Shared His Liver

Wednesday 6th May 9.00pm

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition follows a radical procedure to save the life of a woman suffering from liver cancer. Thanks to an operation that has been undertaken only twice before, mother of four Christina Wright has another chance at life – but only if her son is prepared to risk his own.

With organ donation in Britain at an all-time low, liver cancer patient Christina Wright may not reach the top of the waiting list in time to save her life. However, surgeons at St James’s University Hospital in Leeds have come up with a radical solution to the problem – adult-to-adult live liver transplants. With risks involved to the donor as well as the recipient, this operation has been performed only twice before. “Our live donors take a risk with their life in order to save the life of another individual,” explains consultant hepatologist Dr Charlie Millsom.

The procedure involves removing half the liver of a healthy donor and using it to replace the diseased liver of the recipient. If the operation is successful, both half livers will grow to the normal size within 12 months. But the operation is complicated and involves two teams of surgeons working simultaneously in adjacent theatres for a whole day. “Donating part of your liver is about the most major surgery you could have,” says Professor Peter Lodge.

For Christina’s four grown-up children, the decision to help their mother is an easy one. The only choice that remains concerns which of the four is best suited to donate. At St James’s, the four meet with the medical team to learn about the risks and benefits involved. The team quickly rules out youngest sons Spencer and Paul owing to their medical histories, leaving Darren and sister Alison. Both are blood-group compatible with Christina, so the decision comes down to a question of liver size. In the end, Darren is selected as the most suitable donor.

Before the operation can go ahead, however, Darren must undergo a battery of tests to see if he is both physically and psychologically fit for the job. The doctors must ensure that Darren’s blood, lungs, heart and liver are all healthy enough to undergo major surgery. In the event, the news is good – Darren is up to the job and a date is set for the procedure. “It’s a fantastic thing he’s doing,” says Christina of her son. “He’s always been my right-hand man.”

When the day of the operation dawns, Darren and Christina arrive at the hospital and are prepared for surgery in adjacent theatres. Because the procedure is so complicated, each of the two teams will feature two consultants. “This is a very precious situation,” says Professor Lodge. “We can’t afford any mistakes.” After Darren is given an epidural to deal with the pain when he comes round, the surgeons can begin. While one team sets to work bisecting Darren’s healthy liver, the other checks to ensure that Christina’s cancer has not spread, before removing her diseased liver.

After a few hours, Professor Lodge has completely bisected Darren’s liver and must now wait for the other team to be ready to receive the organ. Once the teams are in sync, the most critical part of the operation begins – to move Darren’s half liver into Christina’s body. The surgeons attach Christina’s blood vessels to the liver and remove the clamps. If all goes well, the patient’s blood will flow directly into her new liver without leaking. Twelve hours after the operation began, it is over. For the family waiting anxiously outside, it is great news – the procedure has been a complete success.

Just three months after their surgery, both Darren and Christina are well enough to attend Spencer’s wedding – at which Darren is best man. “It’s a funny feeling,” says Christina of her experience. “I can’t put into words what the medical team has done for us – I don’t think you could ever repay that.”

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1