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'Miracle' transplant marks 5,000th in record year for Utah's Intermountain Healthcare

Liver transplant recipient Jesse Davis, of North Ogden, hugs her donor Shawna Blamires, of Ogden, after a press conference in Murray on Tuesday. Intermountain Healthcare performed its 5,000th adult solid organ transplant in 2021.

Liver transplant recipient Jesse Davis, of North Ogden, hugs her donor Shawna Blamires, of Ogden, after a press conference in Murray on Tuesday. Intermountain Healthcare performed its 5,000th adult solid organ transplant in 2021. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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MURRAY — Jesse Davis was put on the transplant list in August 2020 when her liver was failing. About five months later, a fellow teacher and friend donated part of a liver, which gives Davis renewed life.

"Life has been so wonderful and fun, and I owe it to Shawna (Blamires) who didn't wait until she was dead, she donated when it was needed," Davis said. "I am a completely different person. I can play with my daughter, I ride my horses everywhere, and I am back teaching full time."

Intermountain Healthcare thanked Blamires, many other living donors and the families of deceased donors as the organization celebrated a record-breaking year in 2021 with 289 adult solid organ transplants. This includes 170 kidney transplants, six pancreas transplants, 94 liver transplants and 19 heart transplants. Last year was the third year in a row where Intermountain bested its previous records.

Intermountain also marked its 5,000th transplant in 2021.

"COVID may have turned the world upside down, but our transplant team has been creative and worked hard to change a lot of lives in another unprecedented year," said Dr. Diane Alonso, transplant surgeon and medical director with Intermountain Healthcare's abdominal transplant program.

She explained that reaching this record required a lot of different people working together, communicating and prioritizing transplants. For example, they communicated frequently with blood banks to make sure they were saving supplies for transplants; and, with the hospital, to make sure there was always at least one hospital bed available for transplant patients.

"Despite an over-extended health care system, our hospital and transplant teams dug deep and have been truly resourceful in the past year in order to be able to continue to provide these life saving transplants for so many individuals in our region. We are truly proud and grateful to every caregiver at Intermountain Healthcare, and the team that has continued to work tirelessly in the face of the pandemic," Alonso said.

She said that transplants are one of the most complex medical services. Only about 100 hospitals in the country can provide transplant surgeries, and few hospitals have achieved the milestone of 5,000 transplants.

"I, for one, feel very privileged and honored that I get to work with such a fantastic team of individuals committed to bringing the gift of life to those in need in our communities," Alonso said.

She said she is inspired by living donors and thanked the families of deceased donors for thinking of others during difficult times.

"Without you and your loved ones' gifts, we would not be capable of saving the lives of so many hundreds of mothers, teachers, fathers, neighbors and friends in our community; and, on their behalf, we are deeply grateful and thankful for each and every gift today and every day," Alonso said.

Davis said she started feeling sick in high school, and had been assigned to be mentored by Blamires when she did her first year of teaching. During that year in 2009, she was getting sicker and was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease that leads to scarred bile ducts and an inefficient digestive system. She talked to Blamires about her health as the two became friends.

Davis said her symptoms subsided in 2019 while she was pregnant, but they tanked after her baby daughter was born. Then she couldn't sleep, eat or ride her horses. Blamires asked for the donation link as soon as she learned that no family members would be able to help her friend.

"There was never a defining moment. There was never a decision that had to be made. It was just something that was going to happen," Blamires said.

Blamires delivered the news that she was a match herself, bringing a heartfelt note and a stuffed kidney toy to Davis' house with it.

Davis said she was walking the day after the surgery, and even got out of the hospital before Blamires. She thanked the Intermountain team for helping her stay well enough to keep working and taking care of her throughout the whole process.

"It's been wonderful. I'm a completely different person. I have my life back," Davis said, calling the experience "a miracle."

Blamires said her recovery was hard, but despite the pain, she has not had any regrets.

"Even at those worst moments, just knowing that (Davis) was going to be healthy and happy and be able to raise her daughter and live her life — it's totally worth it, totally worth it," Blamires said.

Now, the two are even closer and consider each other to be family. Both are passionate about living organ donations and try to spread the word about the growing need. They paint rocks and put them around the city and march in parades to raise awareness for organ donation.

Dr. Donald Morris, Intermountain's kidney transplant medical director, said that there are 500 Utahns waiting for a kidney. He said they have been fortunate to participate in the National Kidney registry and be able to bring people together who wouldn't typically match. This leads them to be able to focus on finding the best possible matched kidney.

"Unfortunately, every day, 11 or 12 people die waiting for a kidney transplant," said Morris. "Living kidney donation offers quite a bit of hope for these patients and is really life-changing for them."

Living donations typically have better outcomes, he said, along with allowing transplants to happen sooner. A living kidney transplant can double the life expectancy of the recipient, improve their quality of life and decrease health costs.

"For me, it was a total no brainer. Not only was I helping someone I really, really care about but I was also helping someone else," said Courtney Harkins, a former competitive downhill skier. She signed up to help a family friend, but ended up not being a good match. Her kidney, instead, went to someone in San Francisco, who had been awaiting the life-saving transplant.

Her friend, however, received another donated kidney.

Harkins said she overheard where her kidney was going as she was being moved into the operating room, which was a special experience for her. She was back to the ski slopes six weeks after surgery.

Intermountain has partnered with national organizations to help find donors, the National Kidney Foundation has helped them find well-matched kidney donors and Utah's DonorConnect has helped identify overlooked donors.

In addition to Intermountain's record-breaking year, the United Network for Organ Sharing also broke its record as the nation reached 40,000 transplants. Because of this, the number of people waiting for an organ is lower than at any point since 2009 — at 106,660. Of that, 823 are in Utah.

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