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Surgery Superheroes: Pediatric Liver Transplant

St. Louis Children's Hospital visuals with a cartoon-like background and reads "Superhero Day."

Surgeons at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis provide the best quality care to all patients, of all ages. Surgeons in pediatric specialties care for a very special kind of patient at the School of Medicine: children. These young patients exhibit qualities that amaze and impress Washington University surgeons every day. Courage, resilience, bravery—these characteristics make children much more than good patients. In the eyes of pediatric surgeons, these children are superheroes!

Washington University transplant surgeons Adeel Khan, MD, MPH, and Majella Doyle, MD, MBA, and pediatrician Janis Stoll, MD, from the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Liver Care and Transplant Center share what makes their young patients superheroes, and how liver transplant procedures help enhance their superpowers.

Why do you like working with children? What is your favorite part of working with younger patients?

Dr. Doyle: They are amazing. They recover so quickly. They are so happy most of the time. To get as sick as they do, to need a liver transplant, and then recover so quickly after surgery, they are such superheroes. You don’t see them complain. It’s incredible. It amazes me how much our patients take in stride without every complaining. We see a different level of courage and bravery that’s required of a child, and these kids have it.

Dr. Khan: I love how quickly the children go from being extremely sick to looking and acting completely normal. Their resilience and ability to recover so quickly never ceases to amaze me. We put them through a huge operation and just a few days later they are all smiles, playing with their favorite toy and asking for ice cream like nothing had happened. I love that.

Dr. Stoll: I think the word “resilience” is underused. They bounce back and are cheerful, coming into clinic to see us. They have this ability to approach every problem with bravery that you don’t even see in the adult population.

What superpowers do your patients possess?

Dr. Doyle: Bravery.

Dr. Khan: Superhuman strength.

Dr. Stoll: Resilience.

How can a family member be a good sidekick for their superhero child?

Dr. Doyle: They make us the best doctors that we can be. They push us to do our jobs to the best of our ability. What they don’t know is that we are so attached to these kids. We understand the magnitude of the surgery, and we feel so strongly and deeply about these children. The power of the parents and the power of the children makes be the very best doctors that we can be for them.

Dr. Khan: Just like on TV, where a reliable sidekick is often vital for the success of the superhero’s mission, families—especially parents—play a crucial role in their child’s recovery. They are the ultimate sidekicks through their never ending support and encouragement and by being the best possible advocates for their child. After the surgery, their superhero needs constant reassurance and encouragement. By providing that in generous doses, parents and families can ensure that their child is on the fastest smoothest path to mission completion!

Dr. Stoll: Families show advocacy for their children. They are constantly thinking about their child’s best interest and their medical care. No matter where, whether in the hospital or clinic, they are always looking out for their child’s care.

What do you want parents to know about you, the surgery you perform, or Children’s Hospital?

Dr. Doyle: We perform liver surgery, including complex procedures, in adults and children, for both cancer and noncancerous reasons. The liver is life. We can reassure parents by showing pictures from the operating room as the procedure is going on. We send pictures of the liver and updates from the procedure using an app that the family can download on their phone. The families are updated very frequently. Beyond the operating room, seeing these children grow up is very rewarding for us.

Dr. Khan: We are primarily transplant surgeons and perform liver, kidney and pancreas transplants in both adults and children. We also do non-transplant operations for these organs when they get involved by cancer or other ailments that require a surgical solution. These can be some of the most challenging surgeries, but we are blessed with a great team that allows us to do this day-in and day-out with a very high rate of success. They say it takes a village to get a child through a liver transplant, and we have one of the best villages that prides itself on providing the best care possible to the patients and their families and ensuring the fastest path to recovery and normalcy.

Dr. Stoll: We feel like we are part of their family journey from when they are diagnosed with a chronic liver disease to when they go off to college and beyond. We most enjoy getting uplifting things, like pictures of Halloween costumes, pictures from prom. These kinds of things make our day, because these 100+ kids that we follow as a transplant team are part of our transplant team. Those little moments where we see them living their lives mean so much to us.

Can you describe some of the operations you frequently perform for younger patients? How do these procedures enhance their superpowers?

Dr. Doyle: Liver transplants and liver resections are the two major operations that we do. These operations give kids the chance to grow up healthy and strong. We get to see their powers grow throughout their lives. One of the most impactful things for me is seeing our patients over the years.

Dr. Khan: Liver transplants and liver surgery are the operations we most frequently perform on younger children. It is fitting in a way because like these children, the liver also happens to a superhero with magical super powers of its own. It is the only major organ in the body that regenerates and grows after surgery. The liver is so smart that after being cut or transplanted, it knows to grow at the exact same rate as the child and once the child has stopped growing, the liver stops growing too and then just keeps working quietly in the background for as long as it is needed. So in many ways, livers are the ultimate sidekicks for the ultimate superheroes. In this case, they also come with a really cool scar.

Dr. Stoll: They are super proud of that scar. Our kids feel special. They have a donor organ that they live with. That is a very, very special thing that they learn about as they grow up. They can explain to classmates, friends and family what it means to have a donor organ. They make presentations about somebody else’s organ inside their body, which is very cool.

Who is your favorite superhero?

Dr. Doyle: Wonderwoman!

Dr. Khan: Dr. Doyle!

Dr. Stoll: Iron Man!