Dr. Ronald Busuttil remembers the day he performed his first liver transplant at UCLA Health as if it were yesterday. It was mid-afternoon, and he was at his accountant’s office doing his taxes when he received a phone call that a donor organ was available at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.
In the early days of liver transplantation, there was a short window to recover an organ and transplant it successfully into a patient. He needed to be at St. Joseph no later than 6 p.m. Busuttil set out with two of his colleagues for the 17-mile drive. But first, they had an errand to run.
“In those days, liver transplants were done very infrequently, and the way we transported the donor organ was in an Igloo cooler filled with ice,” Busuttil, the founding chief of the UCLA Division of Liver and Pancreas Transplantation, recalled. “We would procure the organ, profuse the organ during the procurement with a preservative, pack it in ice and bring it back.”
After a quick stop at a nearby convenience store to pick up a cooler and four bags of ice, the team was on its way.
That was Feb. 1, 1984 — the day UCLA Health launched what was to become an enormously successful liver transplant program. Today, the hospital system has one of the largest and most prestigious liver transplant centers in the nation. As the program’s founder and chief surgeon, Busuttil served as director of the Pfleger Liver Institute, which includes the Dumont–UCLA Transplant Center and the Dumont–UCLA Liver Cancer Center.
During a nearly 40-year span, Busuttil and his team have performed an estimated 8,000 liver transplants, including more than 1,000 transplants on children. Under his guidance, UCLA Health also ran liver transplantation programs at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center during the late 1990s, and at UC Irvine.
Busuttil will be honored by his peers for his many contributions to UCLA at the Luskin Conference Center on Friday, July 29.
“It couldn’t have been a better three-and-a-half decades of saving lives,” he said. “We have such a wonderful team that made this possible. It was an incredible span and an incredible career. I couldn’t be happier.”