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Coronavirus outbreak delayed his liver transplant. Then doctors found a solution.

Rapid coronavirus testing allowed doctors to give Zach Branson the liver he needed. The pandemic has led many hospitals to postpone transplant operations.
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/ Source: NBC News

Zach Branson, a Colorado man whose lifesaving transplant was put on hold last month because of the coronavirus pandemic, has received a new liver, donated by his uncle.

Doctors at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Denver previously canceled the surgery — along with all other organ transplants from living donors — amid concerns that such operations would leave patients and donors vulnerable to the coronavirus.

But the hospital reversed course last week after developing the capability to test for the coronavirus in UCHealth’s lab and get results in under four hours.

Zach Branson
Zach and his sister, Ashley.

"All potential living donor transplant patients are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, examining risks to the donor and recipient, before an appropriate plan of action is determined,” Dan Weaver, a hospital spokesman, said in an email.

Both Branson, 33, and his uncle, Troy, 45, tested negative for the virus Monday morning, giving doctors the green light. Within hours, transplant surgeons had removed a portion of Troy’s healthy liver and implanted it in his nephew, who was born with a rare disease that caused bile to back up in his body, slowly devastating his liver.

“Zach is doing great!” his sister, Ashley, wrote in a text message Tuesday morning. “Surgeon said his new liver is working great.”

Zach Branson
Zach Branson recovers from his transplant surgery on April 6. Courtesy of Zach Branson

Doctors had told Branson early last month that, without the transplant surgery, he might have 30 to 45 days to live. Then, on March 13, he received word that the hospital was postponing the operation, scheduled for March 25, citing concerns about the coronavirus.

In the days afterward, Branson made arrangements for home hospice care — unsure whether he would need it.

“Whatever is meant to be is going to be,” he said at the time. “That’s the way I’m trying to approach this.”

The coronavirus pandemic has led hospitals across the United States to cancel or postpone most elective surgeries, seriously disrupting the lives of many awaiting new organs, transplant experts said.

Doctors in some parts of the country say an inability to quickly test potential donors for the coronavirus has led them to decline viable organs, forcing some ailing patients to wait longer. To avert the spread of the virus among vulnerable patients who must take immunosuppressive drugs to prevent rejection of their new organs, doctors have canceled most routine follow-up visits for transplant recipients.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

And in anticipation of a surge of coronavirus patients requiring beds in intensive care units, some hospitals are now performing transplant operations only for patients who are at the most dire risk of death. That may mean delaying kidney transplants for patients who can get by on dialysis, or holding off on heart transplants for those surviving on mechanical heart pumps.

Prior to his surgery Monday, Branson said he knew he was fortunate to get another chance. On Tuesday morning, he texted his sister from his hospital bed, where he was recovering.

“They keep telling me I’m the most alert and active liver recipient that they’ve seen,” he wrote. “I chalk it all up to the extended love and support from all of you.”