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January 09, 2017 06:32 PM

Avera Doctor Creates New Liver Transplant Program In South Dakota

Tessa Hertel was diagnosed with a rare liver disease when she was just a year old. She was added to the long list of patients in need of a liver transplant.

A car accident which killed 12-year-old Kristin Burkholder made that possible as she became Hertel's saving grace and organ donor.

"If I was able to give Kristen a hug I would. So I feel like he is the next thing closest thing to her," Hertel said

While her story is an intriguing one, it recently got a lot more interesting when Hertel was working at Avera and learned about its new liver transplant program.

The first-ever liver transplant in South Dakota's history took place last month. Soon after, Hertel heard mention of the doctor involved in the case, Dr. Jeffrey Steers.

"I was wondering why does that name sound so familiar? So I asked my mom, 'There's this doctor who is kind of trying to get a liver program going here.' And I said, 'Who did my transplant?' She said, 'Well, Dr. Steers from Mayo Clinic.' And I was like, 'No way,'" Hertel said.

There are currently are 51 people on the liver transplant list in South Dakota, while most surrounding states only have 29 or less. Hertel and her family had traveled for her surgery because at the time there was no program in South Dakota. Avera is hoping to reduce those numbers through its program. 

"We started a couple of years ago to put together a team to undertake liver transplantation and that program is up and running," Steers said

Steers says there can be added risks when patients have to travel out of state for a transplant. He says many patients often aren't referred to another facility until it's too late. Steers says his reunion with Hertel is a reminder why the program here is so important.

"It's always rewarding to see patients that you've transplanted leading normal lives. It makes all the rest of it worth it," Steers said.

So far, just two liver transplant surgeries have been performed since the program began. Steers says the goal is to complete 2 to 3 every month.
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