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Alfonso Garcia

A Young Man Saves Teen's Life

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Alfonso Garcia was just like any other typical healthy and active 16-year-old. He dreamed of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, boxing, and serving in the military like his two other brothers.

Then, in January 2010, he suddenly started feeling sick. He became feverish, anemic, fatigued and jaundiced.

Alfonso found out that he had Wilson's disease, a rare genetic disorder in which copper in the body isn't properly eliminated and instead accumulates, damaging the liver and nervous system. Alfonso and his family received a grave prognosis: he had just 48 hours to find a liver transplant or he might not survive.

With the help of Dr. Phil Rosenthal, a pediatric liver specialist, and Dr. Ryutaro Hirose, an organ transplant surgeon, Alfonso received an emergency liver transplant through UCSF's Liver Transplant Program. The donor was another young man, George Becker, a 21-year old from Sacramento, Calif., who had lost his life suddenly due to a sinus infection that had spread to his brain.

The transplant, performed by Dr. Hirose, went smoothly. Two weeks later, Alfonso underwent another procedure to repair his bile duct.

"Alfonso's case was a dramatic example of how quickly a person can go from perfectly young and healthy to being on death's door knocking loudly," Dr. Hirose said. "It also speaks to the miracle that is modern transplantation, and how dependent it still is on the generosity of others in times of stress and grief when they agree to organ donation in their loved one."

Alfonso's father, Oscar, a respiratory therapist who has worked for UCSF for 20 years, was grateful for the exceptional service that his colleagues provided and to the donor and his family.

Alfonso, now 17, is doing great. He takes twice-daily anti-rejection medication, gets monthly lab tests and has regular follow-up visits at UCSF every six months to check his progress. A senior at Saint Mary's College High School in Berkeley, Calif., Alfonso is already thinking about college.

Unfortunately, because of his medication, Alfonso can no longer pursue his dream of serving in the military. But Alfonso recently realized a different life-long dream when he threw out the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at AT&T Park as part of the Giants' Organ Donation Awareness Day.

An ambassador for the California Transplant Donor Network, Alfonso now speaks publicly to high schools, colleges, clinics and youth groups about his experience. It's his way to "pay it forward" by encouraging people to register to become an organ donor.

"We have many more people on the waiting list that need organs than we have organs to offer them," Dr. Hirose said. "Many patients still die on the waiting list, waiting for a transplant organ. Alfonso's work is commendable as he encourages others to become organ donors. This is life-saving work, and Alfonso is an inspiration."

Recently, Alfonso and his family were united with the family of the young donor who saved Alfonso's life. During the emotional encounter, the two families exchanged videos of the two young men. George's mother put her hand on Alfonso's liver. The meeting, Alfonso said, was a mix of joy and sadness for both families.

"They went through a tragedy and we went through a miracle," Alfonso said. "George is a real hero. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here today."

Story written August 2011

Kendra Mayfield is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Tags: Liver TransplantWilson Disease
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