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Man recovers after San Diego’s first heart-liver transplant surgery

SAN DIEGO - A San Diego man was recovering Thursday following the first successful combined heart-liver transplant surgery to take place in San Diego, according to UC San Diego Health.

During the 10-hour operation on Nov. 4, Frank "Sonny" Taitano received a healthy heart and liver.

"I thank everyone from the bottom of my new heart and liver," said Taitano, a 54-year-old father of six children and grandfather of 13.

"I owe the team here everything," he said. "I went in one door very sick, and came back out a new person. I can breathe again. I can speak again."

Fewer than 10 of these combined surgeries are performed each year in the United States, according to UCSD Health. The National Institutes of Health reported 159 combined heart-liver transplants performed in this country from Jan. 1, 1988, to Oct. 3, 2014. Outcomes have been comparable to those of individual transplants of the organs.

"This is a relatively rare and complex procedure that can only be taken on by the most advanced teams with strong multidisciplinary collaboration," said Dr. Alan Hemming, who performed the liver transplant and is chief of Transplantation and Hepatobiliary Surgery at UCSD Health. "We also must remember the donors and their families to whom we are deeply grateful and without whom this gift of life would not be possible."

Taitano was on a waiting list for more than 155 days.

To extend his life while a suitable heart-liver match was found, he was placed for more than 50 days on a cardiac mechanical pump, called the Impella 5.0. This was the first time that the type of device has been used to sustain a patient for a combined heart-liver transplant.

"Because Frank became increasingly ill while on the wait list, this device was his only shot to stay alive for a transplant," said Dr. Eric Adler, cardiologist and director of cardiac transplant and mechanical circulatory support.

"About a month ago, we were not sure that he would make it but the device did the job by serving as a bridge to a combined heart-liver transplant," Adler said. "The results have been spectacular and deeply gratifying for all involved."

"One and five people on waiting list in California will die. The only way we can improve that is to have people donate," said surgeon Alan Hemming.

Taitano hasn't met his donor's family, but hopes that he will someday.

"I would love to meet them or at least talk to them because they gave me second chance at life," said Taitano.

Taitano will be released from the hospital next week and said he can't wait to get back to his passion for cooking.