Surgeons at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone and the NYU Langone Transplant Institute have successfully performed the first two pediatric liver transplants at the institution. The lifesaving surgeries were conducted within a week of each other, giving hope and a new lease on life to two young girls from New Jersey.
To address the rising incidence of liver disease in children and the critical need for quality care, Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital formed the Pediatric Liver Disease and Transplant Program this April. It is led by Adam Griesemer, MD, also director of the Living Donor Liver Transplant Program and a member of the Department of Surgery at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and the renowned pediatric hepatologists Nadia Ovchinsky, MD, Jennifer M. Vittorio, MD, and Debora Kogan-Liberman, MD.
“Our number one goal is to improve the quality of our patients’ lives,” said Dr. Ovchinsky, director of the Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Hepatology at NYU Langone. “While the program is new, our medical, surgical, and transplant teams are very experienced. This is a very exciting time for us, and we look forward to continuing to expand our ability to care for children with liver disease.”
Girl with Severe Cirrhosis Receives New Liver at Age 12
Naihomi Vargas, age 12, was the first recipient of a liver transplant on July 17. Eight years before in the Dominican Republic, she was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis, a rare and serious chronic condition that causes inflammation in the liver. The Vargas family made the difficult decision to relocate from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey to ensure Naihomi received the necessary medical care for her complex condition.
Over the years, Naihomi’s condition progressed to cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, which is the last stage of chronic liver disease. In April 2023, clinicians in New Jersey realized Naihomi’s progression to advanced liver disease and referred her to Dr. Ovchinsky and the Pediatric Liver Disease and Transplant Program.
“The damage to her liver, which produces proteins that help the blood to clot, also slowed her natural clotting response, leaving her at high risk for bleeding problems,” said Dr. Ovchinsky.
After evaluation, the team made the decision to add Naihomi to the transplant waiting list at the end of April. On Sunday, July 16, a suitable organ became available, and Dr. Griesemer successfully replaced Naihomi’s liver the following day.
“Naihomi receiving a new liver has made me the happiest I’ve ever felt. I can’t commend the Pediatric Liver Disease and Transplant Program team enough for the amazing work they did for our family,” said Naihomi’s father, José. “Everyone from the administrative staff to the surgeons have been incredibly supportive during the most terrifying week of our lives.”
Naihomi is now back home in New Jersey with her family, and ready for healthy and happy teenage years.
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Liver Transplant Helps Joscelyn, an 11-year-old with Rare, Progressive Autoimmune Disease
Just six days after Naihomi’s surgery, 11-year-old Joscelyn DeJesus became the second recipient of a lifesaving liver transplant at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital. Joscelyn, also from New Jersey, was diagnosed in 2020 with an autoimmune disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC).
PSC is a rare chronic liver disease that causes the bile ducts inside and outside the liver to become inflamed and scarred. They may eventually become blocked, and if this happens, bile builds up in the liver and causes further damage.
“One of the liver’s primary roles is to process toxic substances, including ammonia that is naturally produced in the body; when the organ is not working properly, these toxins can travel to the brain, causing cognitive and behavioral changes,” said Dr. Vittorio, medical director of the Pediatric Liver Disease and Transplant Program.
Cirrhosis was discovered during routine blood work at the pediatrician. Searching for the cause, Joscelyn’s parents, Melissa and Ruben DeJesus, discovered Joscelyn had PSC, which she was likely born with. By 2023, the liver disease caused other complications that affected Joscelyn’s daily life, including fatigue, forgetfulness, and a precancerous liver tumor that had been growing.
“Joscelyn’s PSC was very aggressive, and the only cure was a liver transplant,” added Dr. Ovchinsky, who evaluated Joscelyn for a transplant in June 2023 and placed her on the donor liver waiting list shortly thereafter.
On Sunday, July 23, the DeJesus family got a call that a donor organ was available. That night Dr. Griesemer performed the successful transplant procedure.
While recovering in Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Joscelyn enjoyed singing, playing instruments, and listening to music with Elena Savvides, a board-certified music therapist who provides music therapy to patients thanks to Sala Institute for Child and Family Centered Care.
“Joscelyn is healthy and home thanks to the excellent care she received at every level, especially within the Pediatric Liver Disease and Transplant Program,” said Dr. Griesemer. “It was our privilege to see this transplant through, and I couldn’t be happier for Joscelyn and her family.”
Joscelyn has reunited with her two younger sisters and is looking forward to returning to school this fall.
“Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital made the process seamless,” said Joscelyn’s mother Melissa. “We felt like they supported us well and became extended family to us.”
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Building from a Strong Existing Program
As the pediatric liver transplant program grows, Dr. Griesemer plans to build upon the success of the adult transplant program, which performed 100 liver transplants in 2022, with a 100 percent survival rate after one year.
“Being able to intervene and change the life trajectory of Naihomi, Joscelyn, and the many other children to come is incredibly rewarding,” said Dr. Griesemer. “We gathered this great group of pediatric liver experts to further establish what we expect to be the premier liver transplant program in the Northeast.”