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From Costa Rica to Stanford: Pediatric liver transplant surgeon shares his story

These days, Carlos Esquivel, MD, PhD, is best known as one of the top pediatric liver transplant surgeons. But just a few decades ago, he worked as a generalist physician in an ill-equipped Costa Rican village located across from a river teeming with man-sized crocodiles.

Esquivel told a gripping tale of his journey from his native Costa Rica to Stanford during a recent Café Scientifque presentation. He described how he spent only a year in remote San Vito before traveling to the United States and joining the lab of innovative surgeon F.W. Blaisdell, MD, who took Esquivel under his wing and treated him like a son. On to Sweden, where Esquivel earned his post-doctorate degree, before mastering his transplantation skills with Thomas Starzl, MD, PhD, who is known as the "father of trasnplantation" and conducted the first human liver transplant in 1963.

Back then, transplant surgeons wore knee-high fishing waders to perform transplantations — they were that messy, Esquivel said. And few dared to do liver transplants in children. Fast-forward to today: Transplant surgeries are shorter, much less bloody, and much more survivable thanks to the improvements in technology and immunosuppressant drugs. Last year, the team at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford tallied a 100 percent one-year survival rate, Esquivel told the audience.

Now, the primary problem is the shortage of organs. More than 120,000 people in the United States are waiting for a new organ. Kidneys are most in-demand, but thousands of people are also waiting for new livers. And like kidneys, livers can be taken from living donors, Esquivel said. Sometimes, an adult liver can even be split in two, saving the lives of another adult and a child.

Livers can regenerate, making it an ideal organ to donate. However, the donation surgery can cause complications and donation is a choice that potential donors — and their doctors — should consider carefully, Esquivel said.

Esquivel said surgeries are physically taxing, but also take a great deal of mental preparation. Before surgeries, he said he runs through all the scenarios, trying to prepare for every possibility.

To raise awareness about organ donation, Esquivel, an avid cyclist, completed an across-the-county bicycle race with a former transplant patient. And he has high hopes for the future. Once, transplanted livers only lasted 12 to 15 years, but today, some livers last as long as 30 years, Esquivel said.

Previously: How mentorship shaped a Stanford surgeon's 30 years of liver transplants, Raising awareness about rare diseases and Record number of organ transplants saves five lives in a day

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