Twenty-five years after its first liver transplant, Lurie Children’s transplant program soars

August 17, 2022

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Liver transplant pros: Pamela Gresser, left, surgical technologist with Dr. Riccardo Superina, right.

Twenty-five years ago this month, transplant surgeons at Lurie Children’s, then Children’s Memorial Hospital, made history by performing the hospital’s first ever pediatric liver transplant.

Since then, Lurie Children’s has grown to have one of the largest and most experienced pediatric liver transplant teams in the U.S.

Remarkably, at least three members of the medical team that had a hand in performing that first pediatric liver transplant at Lurie Children’s, back in August 1997, remain at Lurie Children’s: Dr. Riccardo Superina, now the Surgical Director of the Siragusa Transplantation Center and the division head of Transplant Surgery; Dr. Estella Alonso, Medical Director of the Siragusa Transplantation Center and Pamela Gresser, a surgical technologist.

Since 1997, the team has performed over 450 liver transplants and has cared for another 200 liver transplant patients referred from other centers.

In addition to its extensive experience, Lurie Children’s program is one of the only pediatric programs in the country that can perform split liver transplantation, meaning the team can use a single healthy donor liver for two different patients needing the new organ. In most cases, a small portion of the liver goes to a child, while an adult in need can receive the other part at Northwestern Medicine.

A leader in research and education, the transplant team is committed to clinical and laboratory research at Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute, leading the way in improving the health of children with liver disease. Drs. Superina and Alonso have also trained scores of surgeons and pediatricians who are emerging as the future leaders in liver transplantation.

“Lurie Children’s has an incredible transplant team of seasoned and rising talent who continually learn from each other,” said Dr. Alonso. “We are always striving to advance transplant care, not just for our patients, but for all children receiving these procedures.”

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Dr. Estella Alonso, left, with patient Frank

Dr. Superina said liver transplantation in young children has greatly evolved since 1997, with better outcomes for children, who often need a liver transplant for conditions such as biliary atresia, metabolic conditions such as antitrypsin deficiency, or liver tumors.

Today, Dr. Superina’s office adjacent to the downtown Chicago hospital is lined with photos, drawings and memorabilia from his many grateful patients and their families. It’s those walls and drawers full of grateful notes from patients that keeps him going, he said.

“I’m lucky to still be able to do it. I want to reach as many people as we possibly can,” he said.

Dr. Alonso said, “For me, the best part is watching these patients mature into healthy and happy teens and young adults. Hearing about their adventures and helping them navigate their own paths.”

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