Two decades ago, Dr. John Ham knew that practically every liver transplanted in an adult in the United States had come from tragedy -- generally when a donor was killed in a car accident or by gunfire.
But on Oct. 21, 1998, he was part of a surgical contingent that used part of a liver from a living donor to save a dying man’s life at the Medical College of Virginia — one of the first centers to perform the exceedingly complex adult-to-adult living-donor liver transplant.
The story of the combined 15 hours of successful surgery by two surgical teams — 60 percent of Katherine Wojcik’s healthy liver was removed to replace her husband Tom’s diseased organ — was featured in the Washington Post and then was spread across the globe by the Associated Press. Within three weeks of the surgery, Katherine’s remaining liver and Tom’s new liver had grown back to full size.
“It was very fulfilling to see lives saved that way through surgery. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see that happen,” said Ham, now a professor of surgery and transplant surgery chief at the UNLV School of Medicine. “The liver is an amazing organ. I’d really like us to be doing liver transplants in Las Vegas.”
When that happens, University Medical Center will have a successful model to follow. Ham has turned UMC’s kidney transplantation program — the only transplant program for any organ in the state — into one of the nation’s safest. Reports from Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients show that UMC’s three-year kidney survival rate between Jan. 1, 2012, and June 30, 2014, was 94.67 percent, compared with the national average of 88.69 percent. There are now 180 people on a waiting list for a kidney at UMC.
Before arriving at UMC in 2010, the transplant surgeon developed a successful kidney/pancreas and the living donor liver transplant program in Virginia. He also directed the liver and kidney/pancreas transplant programs at Oregon Health and Sciences University and the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center.
With Nevada’s population at more than 2 million — and most of it in Southern Nevada — Ham believes that UMC will become a multi-transplantation center, so individuals won’t have to travels hundreds of miles for transplants of the pancreas, liver, heart and lung.
“It’s a question of funding and I believe it will come,” he said. “The need is there.”
Studies, he notes, have shown that people who must travel long distances for care both before and after transplants don’t fare as well medically as those with a transplant center nearby.
Currently, the Nevada Donor Network reports that 581 Nevadans are among the more than 115,000 Americans on a waiting list for a life-saving organ.
The son of a family physician, Ham never ceases to be impressed by the selflessness and kindness of both the donors and patients he works with. Because people can live normally with only one kidney, the number of living donor kidney transplants continues to increase.
Ham says he’ll never forget the case of Jacob McCulloch who decided to donate one of his kidneys to an ailing friend. That friend, Brandon Moran, had come down with an illness that destroyed his kidneys and left him on dialysis. After Ham performed the successful living donor transplant in 2016, he told a medical reporter with the Las Vegas Review-Journal: “In our quiet times, I think we’d all like to believe we’d react as Jacob did. To sacrifice for a friend, as human beings we’re all touched by that.”
Last year, when the Review-Journal did a feature on Dinorah Arambula, a kidney transplant recipient who was urging people to participate in the annual Las Vegas Kidney Walk at UNLV, a fundraiser to fight kidney disease, Ham said she exemplified the attitude of so many who get the gift of life.
“She talks to people in schools, in hospitals, wherever she can about organ donation, and she she takes care of herself to show how thankful she is that someone donated an organ that gave her a better life,” he said.
Ham says his career as a transplant surgeon has been satisfying. “To play a part in people living longer, and better, it’s rewarding,” he said.