By: Zak Hansen
Photos By: John Horta
Tenet Healthcare Corp. and The Hospitals of Providence (THOP) – Memorial Campus are bringing together a world-class team of doctors, surgeons and specialists for El Paso’s first-ever liver transplant program, set to begin in late 2019. Nationwide, liver disease is on the rise, affecting between 20 and 40 percent of the U.S. population—as many as 30 million people. When left untreated, the liver eventually stops functioning, at which point a transplant is needed. This can happen suddenly, called acute liver failure, or over time as a result of viral hepatitis or drug-induced injury or infection.
In 2016, there were 7,841 liver transplants in the U.S., a 10 percent year-over-year increase, with more than 10,000 people on the liver transplant waiting list nationwide.
Despite great demand, there are just 164 transplant centers nationwide. While no liver transplant program currently exists in the area, the need does. In fact, El Paso has had the first or second highest rate of chronic liver disease deaths in Texas each year since 2003.
With high rates of obesity, diabetes and Hepatitis C—the top cause of liver disease nationwide—El Pasoans are especially at risk. Viruses and untreated medical conditions, alcohol and a high-fat diet also damage the liver over time.
To address this growing crisis, THOP recruited Russian-trained hepatobiliary—a specialist in the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts or bile—and transplant surgeon Dr. Aleksandr A. Reznichenko to lead the charge. Board-certified with more than 20 years of surgical experience, Dr. Reznichenko completed his Transplant Surgery Fellowship at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Division of Transplantation – Department of Surgery. In his three years in Cincinnati, Dr. Reznichenko took part in more than 140 liver transplants, about 20 of which he performed as the lead transplant surgeon.
Joining Dr. Reznichenko is gastroenterologist Dr. Rubén Ramírez-Vega, a Borderlands native with specialized training in transplant hepatology. Dr. Ramírez-Vega has been in private practice in El Paso since 2015, as well as serving as Medical Director for Gastroenterology and Liver at the Hospitals of Providence – Memorial Campus.
In our interview, Dr. Reznichenko highlighted the transplant program’s urgency. “This is a program that is desperately needed in El Paso,” he said. “El Paso is a big city with one of the highest incidents of liver disease anywhere in the United States. It is imperative that patients have access to a liver transplant program of the highest caliber that allows them to receive their care here locally.”
With his focus on gastroenterology and hepatology, Dr. Ramírez-Vega sees every day the need for such a program. “With a combined population of close to two million in West Texas, New Mexico and Mexico, we have to have the health resources readily available to treat and care for our patients,” he said. “Seeing first-hand the prevalence of liver disease here in our community, this is a program that has been much needed.”
Establishing the program here at home will be a boon for those 25 to 40 patients every year forced to make the trek to out-of-town, or even out-of-state, transplant centers. For Dr. Ramírez-Vega, the program “means our patients will now be able to get the final piece of care right here in El Paso.” “I’ve had to send these patients to Dallas, San Antonio or Houston to receive their transplants and it can be very taxing on the patient and family both emotionally and financially.”
“For patients, being able to be close to home and have family support is a tremendous part of the healing process. For many patients, it can become a financial burden to have to travel out of town and they may not be able to have family accompany them,” said Dr. Reznichenko.
Dr. Ramírez-Vega said he feels a particular pride in helping bring this program home.
“I love and El Paso and the people here, it’s my home,” he said. “Being able to bring healthcare resources here and take care of our residents with the healthcare they deserve is an incredible journey to be a part of.”
While Dr. Ramírez-Vega brings this program to the place of his birth, Dr. Reznichenko, settling in to El Paso with his family, looks forward to providing this level of healthcare in his adopted home. “El Paso is a wonderful city filled with rich culture,” said Dr. Reznichenko. “My family and I have felt very welcomed, and I feel proud to be part of the medical community here and to be able to help build a much-needed program.”