Image: Elodie Irvine
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Elodie Irvine, 51, poses at her home on Nov. 10 in Irvine, Calif. Irvine waited on the transplant list at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center for four years as UCI turned down 38 livers and 57 kidneys that were offered for her.
updated 11/10/2005 6:56:43 PM ET 2005-11-10T23:56:43

When Elodie Irvine was diagnosed with a deadly kidney and liver disease, doctors at UCI Medical Center told her she would have a new liver within six months — possibly even a week.

But as months became years, Irvine watched, terrified and helpless, as 10 friends from her hospital-sponsored support group died without getting the transplants they needed.

After four years, Irvine's kidney specialist became suspicious and advised her to transfer to another hospital, where she got the desperately needed kidney and liver transplants within two months.

Others were not so lucky. More than 30 people died waiting for liver transplants from the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, while the understaffed hospital turned down organs, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.

According to the Times, the hospital received 122 liver offers between August 2004 and July 2005 but transplanted just 12.

"They let me sit and sit at home in bed for four years. I thought I was going to die," said Irvine, choking back tears. "To be honest, most of my friends are dead. I watched them die one by one. They kept on telling us, `It's soon, it's soon.'"

Federal officials said Thursday after seeing the Times story that they would immediately stop paying for liver transplants for Medicare recipients on UCI's waiting list. The move by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services means that many of the more than 100 patients still in the program will have to be transferred elsewhere.

Officials at the medical center told the Times the problems were due to staff shortages. The medical center in the city of Orange declined to answer questions from The Associated Press.

By the time Irvine received her transplant, her liver had swelled to four times its normal size and the cysts on her diseased organs had started to burst. She broke her back in six places while lifting a casserole out the oven — something she attributes to four years of bedrest that weakened her spine.

Irvine, a single mother of a 9-year-old son, sued UCI and learned that the hospital had turned down 95 organs — 38 livers and 57 kidneys — that could have been appropriate for her.

"I tried to find parents for my son. I made him tapes so he could remember me. It was a very tough time," said Irvine, now 51. "He would be like, 2 years old and I'm vomiting in the toilet and he'd rub my back and say, `Mama, it'll be OK.'"

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She settled with UCI earlier this year for an undisclosed amount; her lawsuit prompted the federal review that revealed larger problems with the program.

The hospital told the Times the medical center has not had a full-time liver transplant surgeon since July 2004, although federal standards require that a surgeon be constantly available.

Dr. David Imagawa, who oversees UCI's liver transplant program, said a full-time transplant surgeon will join the hospital in early 2006.

"We agree that there were some problems, and we're moving forward to change them," Imagawa, who founded UCI's liver transplant program in 1994 and left in 2002 before returning last summer, told the Times.

Imagawa acknowledged the hospital made mistakes in Irvine's case but said the organs offered for her were "not suitable for someone without a life-threatening emergency."

According to the federal review, UCI performed only eight transplants a year between 2002 and 2004 — fewer than the federal requirement of 12 annually. Just under 69 percent of the liver transplant patients survived at least a year — below the 77 percent survival rate required for federal certification, the report said.

Despite the problems, the hospital maintained its accreditation from the United Network for Organ Sharing. The network did not immediately return calls for comment Thursday.

UCI Medical Center was rocked by two other major scandals in recent years.

In the mid-1990s, fertility doctors stole patients' eggs and implanted them in infertile women who in some instances gave birth. The university paid nearly $20 million to settle legal claims.

In 1999, the facility fired the director of its donated cadaver program amid suspicions that he had improperly sold spines to an Arizona research program.

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