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Organ Grinders

A Bad Year for Livers


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Several gallstones rattled out of Larry Hagman during his liver-transplant surgery this year. Hagman intends to donate those stones to an artist who will use them in a sculpture. This may seem tacky in comparison to the lifesaving gift Hagman received, but don't think his mental faculties were affected by the operation. He simply knows that America is fascinated with celebrity giblets.

And this year America feasted on liver. Livers in the news this year belonged to Hagman, Mickey Mantle, Chicago Bears defensive end Carl Reeves, and even, tragically, Mount Carmel High School football player Kevin Dowling. We might not like liver on the dinner table, but we couldn't get enough of it on the news.

Mickey Mantle was the premier liver celebrity. He was a real celebrity from the start--not some foil for Barbara Edens--and he held up his listless liver as a warning against his own infamous profligacy. He also left a legacy of medical controversy.

While liver waiting periods are typically about four months, Mantle's liver was replaced in about the time he would have spent at a Jiffy Lube. People couldn't help but wonder if the Mick had cut in line--bad enough at the grocery store but particularly heinous when it comes to body parts. What's more, Mantle snagged the liver despite the dubious viability of the rest of his body. That sparked a debate about whether we should give a new lease on life to people who were bad tenants in the first place.

Medical news in '95 showed that even the most conscientious tenants may still lose their livers. Both Reeves and Dowling overheated during football practice in the steamy summer temperatures, throwing their livers into overload. Reeves recovered, though he's still on the injured reserve list. Dowling needed a transplant. It was initially successful, but within a few weeks he died of cardiac arrest.

Figure you're safe since you're not an athlete? You're forgetting that bottle of Tylenol in the medicine cabinet. Evidence--and lawsuits--grew this year showing that the painkiller acetaminophen can pickle your liver too given the right conditions. If you like to chase your Tylenol with liquor, go ahead and have some onions too. They go great with fried liver.

Some history: The liver was once considered the center of emotions. It wasn't until the discovery of blood circulation that Cupid aimed for the ticker. This year more evidence was given for junking the liver as a symbol of heterosexual union: studies show that women's bodies tend to reject livers donated by men. According to the experts, a woman's immune system detects and attacks a liver's "maleness." The studies do not mention whether men have trouble accepting female livers. My guess is that men will accept them, just not make a commitment.

Limiting the donor pool by sex is going to make it even stickier for those needing extra innards. The pool of organ donors in America is already frighteningly small--more people vote than donate livers. Various incentive programs are being considered to increase the organ pool. Some toy with the idea of monetary rewards. I like Singapore's policy of giving organs only to people who agreed to be donors themselves before they knew they were ill.

Or maybe we could just offer donors a free peek at Larry Hagman's gallstones.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo manipulation/David K. Nelson, Jim U-Boat.

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