TAMPA — A 43-year-old man who suffered from Type 1 diabetes, kidney failure and liver cancer recently became the first person to receive a triple organ transplant at Tampa General Hospital.
"I don't really know how to respond to such a great gift,'' said Louie Olivarez, who spoke at a news conference Wednesday at the hospital and encouraged others to follow the generous example of his organ donor's family.
The liver-kidney-pancreas transplant not only has given him a new lease on life, he said, but it frees him from the arduous regimen that he has followed for two decades as a Type 1 diabetic.
"No more shots, no more sugar highs and lows,'' Olivarez said of his postoperative health status, adding that he hasn't had an insulin shot since the Nov. 23 surgery gave him a healthy pancreas, so he is no longer a diabetic. "I just look forward to being a normal person."
Olivarez said he is feeling stronger as he heals at his home in Seminole Heights. The site of his incision remains painful, but he is regaining his appetite and walking with little steps.
Doctors say he is recovering well, which itself is cause for celebration after a highly unusual procedure.
A rare constellation of medical problems resulted in the need for the triple organ transplant. After living with diabetes for so many years, Olivarez developed renal failure, a common consequence of that condition. Additionally, he was diagnosed with a cancerous liver tumor.
Tampa General officials think it was the 10th liver-kidney-pancreas transplant nationwide. It was the third time the procedure had been performed in Florida and the first in the Tampa Bay region.
"It's a pretty huge operation and three organs that you have to monitor," said Dr. Angel Alsina, director of liver transplantation and a physician with LifeLink, the organ procurement partner of Tampa General. "It increases the complexity quite a bit."
Multiple transplants involving other organ combinations are more common. Federal data indicate that more than 550 liver-pancreas-intestine transplants have occurred.
A quadruple organ transplant — liver, kidney, pancreas and intestine — has been performed more than 60 times nationally.
At Tampa General, doctors marveled at how the opportunity came together. Olivarez was on the waiting list for a transplant for only four days.
"We do a lot of work here and a lot of people see a lot of things," said Dr. John Leone, a surgeon involved in the liver and pancreas transplants. "It's rare that a particular case of an individual touches the hearts of so many people in a short period of time."
The procedure was spread out over two days and involved a team of as many as 75 doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.
The first surgery, on Nov. 23, was on the donor, whose organs were removed in such a way as to make them viable for transplant.
As that surgery was finishing about 3 p.m., doctors were already beginning to operate on Olivarez.
About 25 people were in his operating room at any one time, including multiple surgeons, the nursing staff, the anesthesiology team and the nephrologist doing dialysis on Olivarez.
The physicians removed his liver and transplanted the new liver and pancreas during a six-hour procedure, which ended late at night. (There was no need to remove his kidney and pancreas, which will atrophy over time as his body recognizes the new organs.)
Olivarez was transferred to intensive care overnight so his blood pressure and heart rate could stabilize. Doctors wanted him in optimal shape for the kidney transplant the next morning.
The kidney transplant operation, a three-hour procedure, took place in the morning with a rested medical team.
The timing was significant. Olivarez received the new organs at the beginning of Thanksgiving week, which also happened to be the eve of his 43rd birthday and the birthday of his partner, Stan Lasater.
The pair are hoping to take a celebratory cruise in a year. By then, Olivarez should be fully recovered. And for the first time, he could enjoy dining on a cruise without worrying about his sugar levels.
Olivarez is eager to get back to running and even try skiing, now that his health will no longer limit his athletic activities. Above all, he wants to make the most of this new chapter in life.
"I've had a birthday gift, plus a Christmas gift," Olivarez said of his recent fortunes.
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.