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UK’s longest survivor of childhood liver transplant is a medical marvel

Matthew Whittaker, from Higher Wheelton, who has just celebrated 30 years of having a liver transplant as an 11 year old. His is Britain's longest surviving child recipient

Matthew Whittaker, from Higher Wheelton, who has just celebrated 30 years of having a liver transplant as an 11 year old. His is Britain's longest surviving child recipient

Fit and healthy Matthew Whittaker is celebrating 30 years since he underwent a pioneering and extremely risky liver transplant.

Teacher Matthew, now 41, of Higher Wheelton, near Chorley, faced certain death after he was born with a rare liver disease.

He had an experimental transplant procedure at the age of 11, not knowing what the outcome would be.

Now he is Britain’s longest-surviving child recipient of a liver transplant.

Matthew was born with a condition called biliary atresia, which meant that his bile duct was blocked, causing a build-up of toxins and scarring that would eventually lead to liver failure.

His parents were told that he would be dead by two, but he survived several complicated operations.

When Matthew was 11, transplants in children were still rare but his mum Irene wrote to Professor Sir Roy Calne, who had just successfully operated on toddler Ben Hardwick.

Ben, who was to die aged three the following year as a result of complications relating to the surgery, had been featured on BBC’s That’s Life! programme, drawing attention to the lack of donated livers available for children.

Irene also wrote to the programme’s presenter Esther Rantzen, and several weeks later, in March 1984, a suitable liver was found in Holland.

Matthew said: “I remember us getting a phone call and my mum saying to me ‘They’ve got a liver for you’, and I went and got my coat on straight away.”

He added: “I can’t remember a lot before the transplant, other than I was very conscious that I had very yellow, jaundiced skin and a bloated tummy I had to get special clothes for.

“I really didn’t appreciate how poorly I was or that my operation was still at the pioneering stages so I don’t remember worrying about it.”

Matthew’s “exceedingly risky” operation at Addenbrooke hospital in Cambridge took 10 hours, and doctors were unsure what the outcome would be.

But the transplant, from a young adult who had died in a motorbike accident, was a success.

He said: “What I do remember is feeling better afterwards and being able to wear normal clothes and run around because my stomach had shrunk back to a normal size.

“The only time I or my parents met any other child with a liver disease was in hospital.

“That didn’t bother me but I know my parents would have found it helpful to speak to other parents in the same situation about what to expect.

“These days people are surprised when I tell them I’ve had a liver transplant.

“I’m a teacher and I enjoy competitive running but I know I’m lucky in that I don’t really have to think about it or talk about it.”

Since Matthew’s operation, more than 2,300 children have had successful transplants.

“We now have the first generation of children born with liver disease who have survived into adulthood and it is a wonderful thing to see,” said Alison Taylor, chief executive of Children’s Liver Disease Foundation.

Sir Roy, now 83, said: “I am more than pleased to celebrate the flourishing of liver transplantation for children.

“What started 30 years ago as an exceedingly risky and difficult exercise has now become routine and particularly satisfying are the number of patients who have survived for a really long time after a liver transplant with excellent quality of life.

Esther Rantzen added: “I vividly remember Matthew Whittaker, whose transplant took place so soon after little Ben’s, and I am thrilled that he has done so well. This was one of That’s Life’s most important campaigns.”

Matthew continues to have yearly check-ups on his liver, but otherwise lives like any other healthy man.

He said: “I don’t have to do anything differently or avoid anything, I just get on with life.”

With 28 children in the UK urgently awaiting a new liver, the CLDF is urging more people to join the organ donor register. See www.organdonation.nhs.uk.

 

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