It was 40 years ago this February that Ronald Busuttil got the call. There was a liver available in a Burbank hospital, ready for transport. He’d need to come immediately. 

Busuttil, UCLA Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Surgery and founding chief of UCLA’s Liver and Pancreas Transplant Program, jumped in the car with two colleagues. Retrieving the liver, the team packed it in a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice, then shuttled it back to Los Angeles. Busuttil would soon scrub in to perform his very first UCLA Health liver transplant. 

A momentous event, this surgery, largely because liver transplants were so incredibly rare at the time. UCLA had been a leader in kidney transplantation since the 1960s, but almost nobody was doing organ transplants of any other sort. And when it came to livers, many prominent doctors at the time insisted the procedure simply should not be done. Too complicated, they thought. Too dangerous.

Busuttil’s successful liver transplant that day in 1984 would mark not only the launch of UCLA’s renowned Liver Transplant Program, but also the beginning of a new era for UCLA Health — and for medicine as a whole. As Busuttil’s program took off, other lifesaving organ transplant programs once thought impossible were being developed. Later that same month, UCLA cardiothoracic surgeons performed their first heart transplant; UCLA lung transplants came in 1990, followed in the coming years by multivisceral, pancreas and dual heart-liver transplants. Meantime, the vaunted Kidney Transplant Program sped ahead with advances that led to dramatically improved outcomes and major growth. By the end of the ’80s, the program was one of the largest of its kind in the nation. 

Busuttils successful liver transplant that day in 1984 would not only mark the launch of UCLAs renowned Liver Transplant Program, but the beginning of a new era for UCLA Health — and for medicine as a whole. 

Driven by collaboration throughout the university, innovation begot innovation, and for the next few decades, the evolution at UCLA was nothing short of remarkable. With livers alone, survival has steadily increased from 30% to the 90% range. 

As the science progressed — from ice and Styrofoam coolers to mechanical hearts and pioneering stem-cell organ-tolerance treatments, all within the lifespan of today’s millennials — the successes and milestones have piled up. In 2016, UCLA celebrated its thousandth lung transplant; in 2021, it hit the 2,500-heart mark; and in 2022, 10,000 kidneys. Overall, the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center has performed an astounding 22,000 solid-organ transplants, among the most of any hospital in the U.S., with survival rates consistently above national averages.

In the process, UCLA has also earned the distinction of being one of the few medical centers in the country with expertise in both pediatric and adult transplants. The same is true for dual-organ transplantation, which is exceedingly complex, given the level of multidisciplinary cooperation and experience required. “That’s the beauty of an academic health system like ours,” offers Johnese Spisso, president of UCLA Health and CEO of the UCLA Hospital System. Not only do scientists, surgeons and health care professionals work in an environment that is highly collaborative, she says, but that environment is also steeped in “a culture of continuous innovation, of translating scientific discoveries into new ways to enhance care.”  

It’s thanks to these attributes, Spisso says, that UCLA Health is the leader it is today in transplantation services — not just in volume, but in excellence and complexity. And the real reward for that leadership, she adds, goes well beyond the excitement of shaping a continually evolving field. It’s in the patients themselves. Their lives. “They are our true legacy,” she says. “Nothing compares with the joy a healthy patient shares with loved ones years after a successful transplant surgery.” 

Thats proven by the stories of three successful surgeries and the patients whose lives were impacted — and saved — at UCLA.  

Alisha Jucevic
Kelly Seidenkranz, photographed at her home in Canyon Country, California, on Feb. 7, 2024: “Im living my best life right now.

Against All Odds, a Beating Heart

Kelly Seidenkranz had never heard of SCAD — that’s spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a sudden tearing in the heart’s artery wall — until the day it almost killed her. In fact, the vivacious then-49-year-old — a healthy eater, a runner — had never had so much as a flicker of cardiac concern before that. So when, one June day in 2020, she felt a pain in her chest, she assumed it was heartburn. Maybe stress. The hours wore on. The pain worsened. Then suddenly, the force of it took her to her knees. She was sickly white and sweating. 

Alisha Jucevic
Seidenkranz with her new puppy. She wanted to come home to a puppy after all of her time in the hospital and was excited to finally get one years later.

Panicked, her husband and two children rushed her to the hospital near their Santa Clarita, California, home. Once there, she went into cardiac arrest. Twice, she flatlined.    

The first stroke of good luck in a story brimming with it — “miraculous luck,” Seidenkranz says — was that the heart attack happened where it did, at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in Santa Clarita. Her left main artery was completely detached; there was no blood circulation. In any other setting — including the many hospitals that lack the advanced cardiac equipment of her hospital, a UCLA affiliate — this would have meant death. 

The second was that James S. Lee, UCLA interventional cardiologist and associate clinical professor of medicine, was on duty that day. Few doctors have seen a condition as severe as Seidenkranz’s in patients who are still alive, but Lee spotted immediately what was happening. He wasted no time in getting her to lifesaving surgery, then connecting with the cardiothoracic team at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center to get her transported there. The situation was dire; Seidenkranz’s organs were shutting down. For weeks, a mechanical pump circulated her blood to keep her alive, while cardiologists tried for weeks to save her obliterated heart. In the end, it was too damaged. 

She was, however, an excellent candidate for a transplant. And there were few places better equipped for that than UCLA, with one of the largest, most successful programs in the country and just a 5% rate of heart rejection. (Nationally, the rate is 25%.) After a mere 10 days on the waiting list, Seidenkranz was matched with a donor — and not just for a heart, but also for the kidney she needed because of her circulatory failure. 

And thus, 41 days after her heart tore and then stopped, Seidenkranz underwent lifesaving surgery again. Her new heart, UCLA cardiothoracic surgeon Murray Kwon says, “took off like a Ferrari.” So it went, too, with her kidney transplant the next day.

Alisha Jucevic
(Left) Seidenkranz wears two heart rings, including one that her husband gave her after her transplant. (Right) Seidenkranz holds a rock painted with the date of her heart transplant. Her niece, who helped out tremendously when she was in the hospital, gifted it to her.

A lengthy recovery followed. For weeks, Seidenkranz struggled to even walk. But time and physical therapy have really done their jobs, she says. To wit? Last year, on a whim, she decided to compete in the Transplant Games of America, a competition for transplant recipients and living donors — and promptly won two gold medals. 

“People say ‘You’d never know, looking at you, that you’ve been through all this,’” Seidenkranz says. That might be true, but inwardly, she’s been deeply impacted by a profound gratitude — gratitude for the entire UCLA medical team, for the myriad friends and family who have supported her, and for her donor and the donor’s family, whom she doesn’t know. 

She finds receiving such a gift and not being able to offer formal thanks deeply humbling. She’s found that volunteering with OneLegacy, an organization devoted to facilitating organ donation, helps her channel some gratitude. And she hopes to return to UCLA and volunteer here, too, giving some faith and hope to UCLA transplant patients nervous about what post-transplant life might look like. 

“I want them to know it can be okay,” Seidenkranz says. And that it can be even more than that — “really good,” she says. “I’m living my best life right now.”

Alisha Jucevic
Andrew Macias with his dog, Pippi, at his home in Los Angeles. After years of fighting diabetes and an eventual kidney failure, Macias connected with a new doctor who gave him hope and recommended him for the kidney transplant program at UCLA. Nearly three years later, his new kidney is still functioning well. He says hes grateful to be able to garden and spend time with his three grandchildren.

The Holy Grail of Transplants

There was a time, Andrew Macias says, when he had no hope left. 

It’s hard to imagine. Talk to this man — a jokey, jovial former semipro football player — even once, and you can tell that hopelessness isn’t really his style. But then, he had heard the bad news straight from his nephrologist: Andy, you’ll be dead in three years. 

He was 55. 

“So I said, ‘Screw this,’” recalls Macias, now 61. After years of fighting the diabetes that had taken his kidney function down to 20%, he just gave up, pushing himself ever closer to the brink. “I ate anything I wanted, did anything I wanted. I was depressed.” 

Alisha Jucevic
(Left) Macias next to his daily medications, laid out on the kitchen table. A glucose monitor and medicine related to Macias’ diabetes, as well as vitamins, are laid out and organized by day. (Right) A photo of Macias’ mom, Ruth, who passed away in February at the age of 94 due to kidney failure.

But things took a dramatic turn once he began seeing a new doctor, a man who saw a shot where the other doctor hadn’t, and who insisted Macias not give up. And so he didn’t, even after his kidneys eventually quit on him, forcing him to endure painful dialysis for nearly two years. That’s when his doctor delivered a big dose of hope: He wanted to recommend Macias for the renowned kidney transplant program at UCLA.

“Do you have people who are willing to give you a kidney?” the doctor asked.

Macias did. Some 20 people — friends and family — stepped up to be tested. But only one was a perfect match: his older brother, Tom. Upon learning he could donate, Tom wrote Macias a note with the news, wrapped it in a box and handed it over at a family Christmas celebration. 

“That’s how I found out I was getting a new kidney,” Macias says. “It was emotional.” 

Tom, it turned out, would be gifting more than just his kidney. The brothers enrolled in UCLA’s groundbreaking Tolerance Trial in 2021, aimed at bypassing the harsh immunosuppressive drug regimen needed post-transplant to keep the body from rejecting the new organ. To do that, nephrologist Erik Lum and Jeffrey Veale, director of the UCLA Kidney Exchange Transplantation Program, would take stem cells from Tom’s bone marrow to infuse into his younger brother’s bones.

Alisha Jucevic
When Macias was going through kidney failure and his transplant, his daughter showed him the results of her recent prenatal ultrasound. “Look closely,” she told him. “There’s two in there. You have to fight.”

The hope was that with enough of Tom’s DNA, Andrew’s body would recognize the kidney as its own, negating the need for anti-rejection drugs — an outcome Veale called “the Holy Grail of transplant surgery.” UCLA was one of just five medical centers in the world capable of performing this revolutionary protocol — and at the time, the only one running tolerance trials for well-matched siblings. 

For Andrew, success here wouldn’t just mean an easier post-transplant life, but very likely a much longer one, too. Even with drugs, most transplanted kidneys falter after 10 to 20 years, necessitating another transplant — an unlikely proposition for someone who was already 58. 

“And then that would be that,” he says. 

Instead, thanks to the innovation and expertise of those in the UCLA Kidney Transplant Program, Andrew is alive, well and drug-free nearly three years after his transplant, with Tom’s gifted kidney functioning at a remarkable 89%. Andrew now has more energy to garden and to run his foundation, Danny’s Shoes, for children in need. Having the transplant has also meant blissfully “normal” days with his wife, who married him at his very sickest (“I’m just that fantastic!” he jokes), and with his children and grandchildren. At this, his voice catches: “They’re my world.” So, yes, he’s happy and hopeful these days. And maybe also a tiny bit grouchier. “That’s my brother’s DNA in me,” Macias says, laughing the laugh of a man grateful to be alive. 

Alisha Jucevic
Georgina Barba and her daughter, Giuliana Rodriguez, 11, at their home in Carson, California

A Mother, a Daughter — and Three Lifesaving Transplants

The year was 2000, and Georgina Barba, 17, was incredibly sick. Her doctors couldn’t quite figure it out: A G.I. issue? Maybe mononucleosis? “Mono!” she says today. “The kissing virus! I had a boyfriend. You can imagine the drama with my very strict Hispanic parents.” 

Kissing was hardly the culprit. Barba’s ailments were symptoms of liver failure, seemingly brought on by a reaction to an antibiotic. After the teen had spent a couple of weeks in and out of the ER, her doctors sent her to UCLA — “the best thing they could have ever done for me,” she says. It was there where she came so close to death that doctors told her parents to prepare; there that they stabilized her; there, on her 18th birthday, that she was waitlisted for a new liver; and there, after a two-week wait for a donor, that she underwent a successful transplant. 

Alisha Jucevic

Barba went on to graduate high school, marry her boyfriend, give birth to a daughter in 2009 and then twins in 2012. All was going well; the children were healthy, as was Barba. In early 2014, however, Barba noticed that Giuliana, one of the 18-month-old twins, seemed behind in some of her development. Her UCLA pediatrician, Negar Ghafouri, ran tests and found — unbelievably — that the issue was with Giuliana’s liver. “I was like, You have to be kidding me,” Barba says.

Giuliana, too, would need a new liver. She was waitlisted, then spent months sick in the hospital before she was declared in good enough shape to go home, with medication, monitoring and occasional visits back, to wait for it. It was a relief for the family, but the respite didn’t last long: Georgina Barba’s replacement liver was now struggling. Her doctors had told her back in 2000 that, like many liver recipients, she’d likely need another transplant in 10 to 15 years. It was 2015. Prophecy fulfilled.

On the recommendation of her UCLA medical team, Barba was waitlisted for a new liver at a hospital in Kansas City, where the wait was shorter. She could go there for the surgery, then come back to UCLA for continued care. And so, in 2016, the entire family made the 1,600-mile trek from California to Missouri so Barba could wait for — and then get — her new liver. By January 2017, they were back home in Carson for Barba’s recuperation. By the end of summer, things were looking up for the family: Not only was Barba in fine health, but Giuliana had been doing so well that her doctors had decided to take her off the transplant list. 

During her extended time in the hospital, when she was only 5, Giuliana took great pride in painting the nails of all of the nursing staff.

But in September, Giuliana fell sick again. This time, there was no question: Like her mother, the little girl would have a transplant at UCLA, the system Barba trusted most — and also one of the few medical centers in the country that does both adult and pediatric liver transplantation. In December, the 5-year-old got her new liver.

Six years later, both Giuliana and her mother are doing well. To say it wasn’t easy getting to this point is an understatement — yet one strong thread through their long, difficult story, Barba will tell you, has been UCLA and the people there who cared for them there. Like the medical team who communicated with her Spanish-speaking parents 24 years ago, comforting them. Like Sammy Saab ’89, M.D. ’93, M.P.H. ’01, medical director of the UCLA Adult Liver Transplant Program, who was on Barba’s transplant team in 2000, and is still her doctor today; like her first nurse after ICU, Katherine Meneses, who is now her care coordinator. 

Throughout these many years, Barba says, she has felt heard. Even more, she has felt the support of the medical team around her and her family, from illness to surgery to life — two lives. 

“Like,” she says, “we’re all in it together.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.