University Hospital Is One of the Busiest for Liver Transplants

NJ Spotlight News | July 9, 2015 | Health Care
University Hospital performed its first liver transplant 26 years ago. It's still one of the busiest.

By Briana Vannozzi

When Mati Munoz got diagnosed with Hepatitis C 23 years ago, the outlook was bleak.

“They did a liver biopsy. It was like the end of my life, like a death sentence. It was very frightening,” she said.

She pushed through for several years, until the disease had spread too far.

“And my doctor said it’s time to call it quits now and get on the list, which I was in denial about,” she said.

“The majority of the patients are from end stage liver disease — induced predominantly by Hepatitis C. Hepatitis C is a real epidemic in the liver transplant world,” said Dr. Nikolaos Pyrsopoulos.

Dr. Pyrsopoulos is the medical director of the liver transplant department at University Hospital in Newark, where the first in the state was performed 26 years ago. Now, it’s one of the busiest transplant centers in the nation.

“We see patients coming into our clinic with advance stages of cirrhosis and liver cancer as well,” Dr. Pyrsopoulos said.

The 10-year survival rate for a liver transplant can be as high as 75 percent. But a transplant doesn’t cure the Hepatitis virus, a common misconception. And it came back just six months after Munoz’s procedure.

“It’s universal. It happens in every single case. That’s why we need more testing,” she said.

Now, there’s a bill before the New Jersey Legislature tied to a campaign with the CDC requiring medical providers to screen every single Baby Boomer for the virus.

“There might be a predisposition to Hepatitis C and we know about three-quarters of the population with Hepatitis C are Baby Boomers. In other words, people born between 1945 and 1965, and unfortunately three-quarters of them don’t know about that,” Dr. Pyrsopoulos said.

University Hospital is also one of the first transplant centers to use a new regiment of medication to treat Hepatitis C. It has few side effects and a nearly 100 percent success rate. Previous methods required regular injections that left little quality of life.

“The nurse called me in Miami to tell me in my first month I was undetectable. Zero viral load for Hepatitis C. I couldn’t believe it. I had a party,” Munoz said.

Currently there are about 17,000 Americans waiting for a liver transplant, but only 6,000 are available and performed each year.

“Even if you’re on the list, there is a 20 to 25 percent chance that you will die without a liver while waiting for an organ to become available,” Dr. Pyrsopoulos said.

One donor can save eight lives and restore health to about 50 others, according to the American Liver Foundation. But just 33 percent of New Jerseyan’s are registered donors.

“I received a gift of life that is indescribable. I have to give back,” Munoz said.

So Munoz does, by volunteering as a mentor for other transplant patients. She hopes to help another life since hers was saved.