Liver Transplant 'Dream Team' Sets World Record

A surgical team in South Korea performed 320 liver transplants last year.

July 29, 2008— -- South Korean liver transplant surgeon Dr. Kwan-Woo Kim has been up for 24 hours straight.

Just after a quick 50-minute nap, he's crawling out of a bunk bed at 5:05 a.m., in the sleeping quarters next to the operating room, to start a new working day. The area inside the Asan Medical Center, the second-largest general hospital in Asia, founded by the conglomerate Hyundai Group, has been his home for the past three years.

"Yes, it's very, very tiring. I see my family every two or three weeks, but when I'm in here, I totally forget about my children," he shrugs. "I'm part of the dream team and my wife and family are proud of that."

Kim is part of the team of surgeons that performed a world record number of liver transplant surgeries last year. They performed 320 surgeries, almost one a day, most of which are living donor transplants. That exceeds the number of total living donor liver transplants ever done in U.S. medical history.

With an astounding success rate of 96 percent, their record owes in large part to Confucian values that dominate the Korean society.

Dr. Seung-Kyu Lee, who leads the team of 17 surgeons and 22 scrub nurses, says Koreans do not hesitate to donate when it comes to a family member, thanks to a long tradition of pious duty. "Most of my patients' donors are parent-child relationship," he says. "In this country, it is common to make sacrifices because of strong family ties."

At the two connecting operating rooms, one for the donor and the other for the recipient, the receiving cancer patient, 60-year-old Soon-Deuk Yoo, asks about her son's progress. He is next door, already in surgery.

"My daughter-in-law pushed my son to take the test, and it matched," she said lying on the operation table, ready for anesthesia. She's getting part of her 32 year-old son's liver.

The dismal rate of cadaveric organ transplants in Korea is another factor. Out of 320 liver transplant surgeries, only 34 were from brain-dead donors last year. Confucian tradition reveres the dead body in belief that the soul lives on. So Lee's team of surgeons had no choice but to work with live donors.

The world record was not an easy catch. With the tight schedules and workloads, unity has been the most valuable asset. "Team interest overrules personal desire," Kim says. "All of us, our dedication is genuine."

The liver transplant team eats and snacks together at random hours in between surgeries, which take from 18 to 24 hours on average. The small, 600-square-foot lounge next to the operation room is equipped with long sofas for naps and running machines to keep the doctors in shape.

Every other month, they invite all the other medical staff related to the liver transplant surgeries at a nearby restaurant for plenty of booze, songs and dances. The long-time tradition in Korean organizations keeps the teamwork solid.

The head nurse, while busy working her chopsticks to grill Korean style barbeque, attributes the success to Lee's Confucian style of paternalistic leadership. "He treats us as a team member, not just a rotating nurse," she says. "Like a father to all of us, he's always asking have we had something to eat. And he never forgets birthdays of even my family members."

Endurance and sacrifice, not only by the donors and recipients, but also by the surgeon team, is what makes them shine, hoping to break another world record this year.