Vincent Liew's kidney transplant was going to give him a new lease on life, or so he and his wife, Kimberly, thought.
What Liew, 37, and his doctors didn't know then was that his new kidney had come with an undiagnosed cancer from its original owner, one that would cause him to die seven months later of uterine cancer.
The New York City man's autopsy revealed widespread tumors in his lungs, bladder, kidneys and prostate, all consistent with the kind of uterine cancer cells found post-mortem in the donor.
Kimberly Liew is now suing the doctors at the NYU Medical Center who performed the transplant, claiming that they didn't properly screen the organ, failed to recognize and treat Liew's cancer, and withheld information concerning the donor's cancer from the couple, according to court documents.
"They made up a lot of excuses," Liew told the New York Daily News. "They told us the kidney is not adapting to his body. They didn't tell me he had cancer."
When Liew was called in for a transplant in February of 2002, he was given a second chance at health that only a fraction of those on the list will ever get.
Although the organ had been cleared for use by the New York Organ Donor Network before the transplant, results from the donor's autopsy later revealed that she suffered from an undiagnosed uterine cancer that had spread to the right ovary and lungs, court papers say.
The discovery was made days after the transplant but, Kimberly Liew claimed, the information was not shared with her or her husband until six months later, when the donor kidney was finally removed by Liew's transplant surgeon, Dr. Thomas Diflo, court papers said.
Neither the NYU doctors nor Liew's attorney, Daniel Buttafuocco, could comment because the judge has issued a gag order on the trial, which began Tuesday in the Queens Supreme Court.
Although it is rare for a donor organ to transmit cancer to a transplant patient, it is not unheard of.
"A patient acquiring a disease from a donor rears its head periodically," said Dr. David Cronin, associate professor of transplant surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "Whenever you take a tissue or an organ or a substance from another human being you're at risk to transmit infectious disease or cancer."
The risk may be small, about 1 percent, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, but it is unavoidable, Cronin said, because doctors are "limited by the technology we have [to screen donors] and the time constraints."
Although surgeons can have as many as 20 hours for kidney transplants to organize the transplant and screen the donor for eligibility, the window is fewer than 10 hours for livers and fewer than six for hearts.
If cancer in a donor went undiagnosed in life, it can be hard to screen for it after the donor has died.
When the donor organ is removed, the surgeon usually does a survey of the chest and abdominal cavity to look for evidence of cancer or infectious disease, Cronin said, and biopsies anything suspicious. Cancers can also be detected later during an autopsy of the donor, but the transplant has already usually taken place by then.