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Tiny Patients, Outstanding Outcomes


May 2006

by Natalie Gutierrez

When Elizabeth Melendez smiles, she lights up a room. The starry-eyed 6-year-old is petite but spunky. "We call her punky because she’s our little pumpkin with lots of personality," says Elizabeth’s mom, Gina.

Upon meeting her you’d never guess that as a newborn, Elizabeth fought for her life. Just a few days after she was born, her liver began to fail and she was hospitalized in need of a transplant.

Elizabeth’s parents, Gina and Pete, say their prayers were answered when Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., took the lead in their daughter’s case. On May 18, 2000, Elizabeth became the youngest liver transplant patient at University Hospital. She was only 3 weeks old. In a 13-hour-long procedure, Gina says Dr. Cigarroa and Glenn Halff, M.D., professor of surgery and director of the Organ Transplantation Program at the Health Science Center, saved Elizabeth’s life.

"We knew Elizabeth had the best team of surgeons, so we were confident," Gina says. "Sometimes I look at how normal Elizabeth is now, and almost forget what she went through as a baby. It’s simply amazing."

Elizabeth is just one of hundreds of children who have benefited from the Health Science Center’s Pediatric Transplant Program. Established in 1988, the program, housed in the Janey Briscoe Children’s Center at University Hospital, is the only center in San Antonio where infants can undergo liver or kidney transplants.

Under Dr. Halff’s leadership, the liver transplant program has grown progressively to become one of the largest programs in the country and has excellent survival outcomes. The Health Science Center is a leader in implementing new techniques such as split liver transplants to help two recipients with one donor liver.

The pediatric kidney program, established in 1989 and housed at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, has become the second largest program of its kind in Texas.

Dr. Cigarroa became president of the Health Science Center in October 2000, yet he continues to practice as a pediatric transplant surgeon and is on call to see patients on weekends. He is the only health science center president in the nation who continues to regularly perform surgery.

"We are proud of our thriving transplant program, and Dr. Cigarroa’s ongoing involvement adds to its strength," Dr. Halff said. "He is a tremendous role model for our team and always makes a lasting impression on the patients," he said.

"Dr. Cigarroa really took the time to get to know Elizabeth," Gina says. "He genuinely cared and that made all the difference. Elizabeth is going to do great things when she grows up. I can see it in her eyes."

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Updated 7/30/14