ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - It's been nearly 10 months since Venae Warner received the liver transplant that saved her life.
"Towards the end people told me they thought I was going to die pretty soon," the Albuquerque resident said. "Probably I was. Fortunately I got the call."
However, because Warner lives in New Mexico, which does not have a liver transplant program, the operation was more difficult and costly than it would have been if she lived in a state with such a program.
But one Albuquerque surgeon is determined to change that.
Dr. Julio Sokolich, who performed the first double organ transplant in state history, was the driving force behind a memorial passed by the New Mexico House of Representatives during the latest session. The memorial asked the Department of Health and the University of New Mexico Hospital to study the feasibility of establishing a liver transplant center in the state.
"We have a high incidence of liver disease and we don't have a transplant center that can do liver transplants," Sokolich said.
In fact, New Mexico has the highest rate of death from chronic liver disease in the country – nearly twice the national average, according to statistics from the Department of Health.
UNM Hospital had a liver transplant program for about five years in the late 1990s, though the hospital shuttered it in 2000. That's when national rules for the waiting list were altered to favor the sickest patients in the country rather than those who'd been on the list the longest.
The new rules meant that most of the livers donated in New Mexico were shipped out of state to places with larger populations and sicker people. And that meant that UNM Hospital's surgeons were performing too few liver transplants to sustain the program.
"Let's say you're a transplant program – or you're any business – and you're operating on a set number," said Wayne Dunlap, executive director of New Mexico Donor Services. "Let's say you have 100 that you're going to do. If you cut that business by 50 percent, it's going to be difficult to operate as a business."
And those rules were tightened again last year, making the prospect of establishing a liver transplant program here even less likely, said Dr. Antonia Harford, director of the transplant program at UNM Hospital.
"The reason the liver transplant program failed was because of the allocation of livers to the sickest patients," Harford said. "And now it's even more of an issue today."
So if you need a new liver, you must be prepared to go out of state and stay there for awhile.
Warner chose a hospital in Omaha, Neb., for her operation, but still spent four years on the waiting list before she received the call about her new liver.
"Toward the end I would go out to the market and sometimes I would get so profoundly fatigued that I couldn't move," she said. "And I'd have to call my husband and have him pick me up."
When the call came, the chartered flight to Nebraska cost $20,000, which was not covered by insurance. Then Warner and her husband spent another $10,000 on lodging and food during their nearly month-long stay in Omaha.
And while Warner had the support and resources to get the transplant, all New Mexicans are not that lucky. That's why Sokolich is fighting to establish a transplant center.
"We have the recipients for the operations," Sokolich said. "We have the offer of organs in the state. We have all the tools available for these operations to be done. We have the personnel that wants to get involved with this project. But we don't have the license."
The feasibility study authorized by the House of Representatives is scheduled to be done by the end of October.
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