City Councilman Jim Motznik learned about Dr. Thomas Starzl's distrust of living donor liver transplants long before most of the public did.
Last year, the councilman canceled his plans to donate part of his liver to his mother after Dr. Starzl and fellow UPMC liver surgeon J. Wallis Marsh told him the procedure was risky, Mr. Motznik said yesterday.
The doctors' advice came after a chance encounter between Mr. Motznik and Dr. Starzl, and contradicted what he had been hearing from other UPMC physicians, he said.
At the time, Dr. Starzl and Dr. Marsh already were compiling statistics on UPMC's living donor liver transplant program. Recently, they published a study in the European Journal of Hepatology that said 66 percent of such transplant recipients suffered serious postoperative complications during a three-year period at UPMC -- from 2003 to 2006 -- and more than 10 percent of the donors experienced serious complications as well.
Mr. Motznik's mother, Rose Marie Motznik of Brookline, who is now 70, had non-alcoholic cirrhosis and was put on the transplant waiting list two years ago, he said.
Last year, he said, when doctors were draining nearly two gallons of fluid from her abdomen each week, they began encouraging him to consider being a donor, because they said his mother wasn't sick enough yet to qualify for a deceased donor's liver, but would benefit from getting an earlier transplant.
But then, while accompanying his mother to a doctors' appointment one day, Mr. Motznik went for a coffee break and ran into an "older looking, skinny guy" who seemed vaguely familiar to him.
They introduced themselves, and that's when he discovered the man was Dr. Starzl, the semi-retired liver transplant pioneer.
"I asked him if I could talk to him about being a liver donor," Mr. Motznik said, "and he said 'Absolutely.' I said I was scheduled to get some tests, and I had some questions about whether I could live with this, and he said, 'Let's go in the back room and we'll sit down with Dr. Marsh.' "
Dr. Marsh, who later became interim chief of transplantation at UPMC, joined Dr. Starzl in telling the councilman that living donation carried risks for both the donor and the recipient. "They said, 'We don't want you to go through with this because it's not safe, and you should not be a living donor.'
"I mean, here is Dr. Starzl telling me not do this. That's all I needed to hear."
Mrs. Motznik remained on waiting list, and two months ago, she received a liver from a deceased donor. She was transferred recently to LifeCare Hospital of Wilkinsburg to continue her recovery, and her new liver is continuing to function, her son said.
Despite the fact that his mother became sicker by waiting for another year for a liver, Mr. Motznik said he was pleased with the choice he made, both for her sake and his.
"I'm thrilled I made the decision I did, because I don't think I was getting all the information I should have until I bumped in to Dr. Starzl."
Dr. Starzl declined to comment for this story.
Dr. Marsh said he was willing to talk to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but UPMC officials declined to make him available.
Instead, UPMC public relations officials released this statement:
"We always review the most up-to-date information on the risks and benefits of surgery with all of our patients in comprehensive written and verbal detail.
"Armed with this information, patients then make their own decisions."
Mark Roth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130.