Transplant team works on one of its own

A Cincinnati transplant surgeon gains fresh insight after getting a new liver.

By Damon Adams — Posted March 1, 2004

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Death crept into the thoughts of Steve Woodle, MD, as he prepared for his next surgery.

As a transplant surgeon, he regularly deals with the life-and-death issues of people who need organ donations for a chance to survive. But this time, he was the one on the operating room table getting a liver transplant.

"The possibility of not waking up crosses your mind. You just say your final prayers and trust everybody," said Dr. Woodle, 50, director of the division of transplantation at the University of Cincinnati.

The operation last fall was a success, and Dr. Woodle is now part of a unique group -- U.S. transplant surgeons who have had their own organ transplant.

The United Network for Organ Sharing knows of four transplant surgeons, including Dr. Woodle, who were organ recipients.

Besides giving him a new lease on life, being a recipient has brought him closer to his patients.

"I say, 'Yeah, I know what you're going through,' " he said. "You can identify with them a little bit more."

And he reminds patients, and himself, not to worry.

"Every time you think about dying ... you lose a minute [you could be] doing something else," he said.

Dr. Woodle learned he had cancer in 1999, when he went to a Houston surgeon for a hernia repair and the doctor found two tumors on his liver.

"The first thing is a lot of fear. Then you want to know how bad it is," he said.

Two weeks later, two-thirds of his liver was removed. Six weeks later, Dr. Woodle started a new job at the University of Cincinnati, directing the transplant program at UC's University Hospital.

A CT scan in 2003 showed new cancerous tumors. The cancer recurrence was treated with radiofrequency ablation by a surgeon on Dr. Woodle's transplant team.

"I didn't want to run the risk of having the tumor grow," Dr. Woodle said. "I knew a transplant was going to be a potential alternative."

Turning to his team

After he was placed on the transplant waiting list, Dr. Woodle wanted to make sure nobody thought he was using his position to skip ahead of others awaiting organs. So his case was carefully documented. The United Network for Organ Sharing reviewed his charts to ensure that the doctor's cancer qualified him for a transplant.

"We made sure everything was on the up-and-up," Dr. Woodle said.

In the end, he waited 60 days, about twice as long as the average person in Cincinnati waits for an organ.

Dr. Woodle didn't hesitate to have his own transplant team perform the surgery. "I knew they were very good, and I knew the results were outstanding, so it made me want to have it done here," he said. But because he was their boss, "I was concerned it [might] be too much of a burden on the nurses and surgeons."

They told him it wouldn't be.

"If you have someone you care about, are you going to take care of him or are you going to send him somewhere else? We thought we could do the best in our institution," said liver transplant surgeon Joseph Buell, MD. On Oct. 13, 2003, Dr. Buell and two other surgeons performed Dr. Woodle's liver transplant.

The operation went well, but six days later, Dr. Woodle developed a pulmonary embolism. From his hospital bed, he directed his initial care.

"I knew what it was the second it hit me. Within five minutes, I'd ordered everything I needed," he said.

Dr. Woodle is back to work full-time now, tending to patients in the same operation and recovery rooms where he was a patient. Dr. Buell notices a change in the surgeon -- one that makes Dr. Woodle relate that much more to the patients he treats.

"When you have a major life-changing event, you can relate to people better," Dr. Buell said. "You can say, 'I know this is scary, but look, I've been through this and you're going to be OK.' "

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