The Gift of Liver

That title sounds like I’m going to talk about organ donation. I’m not in the literal sense. I am in another sense and it is one that helps many people.

Last month, while I was enjoying my Christmas feast and unwrapping presents, we had a patient experience liver failure. Eventually he/she had to have the organ removed. I expect they were lucky enough to receive a transplant since the organ we received in the lab was not part of an autopsy.

It came to us in a large bin, something about the size of a small kitchen sink. Over the course of a week, I had numerous requests for special stains on this. The doctors asked for stains that checked for fungus infections, bacteria infections, cancer, and finally, for copper. That revealed the patient had copper overload in their liver. They had their diagnosis.

copper in liver
The red-brown is copper in liver cells

The only disease I know of that causes copper to stay in the liver like that is Wilson’s Disease. I’m not a doctor. They probably know other conditions that cause this too. Typically, however, copper isn’t such a problem. In this case it was and it caused liver failure.

My heart goes out to this patient. If they have survived, for I don’t know if they have, I would guess they are still in recovery and will always bear the scars of their disease. It is genetically passed so at least they can warn their offspring. They won’t be caught unaware and can be tested to make sure their liver doesn’t suffer the same fate. According to the American Liver Foundation, it is a condition that can be treated and allow a normal life.

I hope the patient has a new liver and will receive treatment to keep it healthy for many decades to come. I send my prayers and wishes for this but that isn’t the message I want to share on this post. What I have to say is about the lab.

The patient gave our lab a gift as well as every person who needs to be tested for Wilson’s Disease for years to come. How? By supplying us with controls.

A control must be run with every test done in labs. A control is a known positive or known negative.

Often, when patient tissue is tested it is negative. Just as I tested the liver for various things before the cause of the disease was found, those tests were all negative. When a test is negative it might be that it didn’t work. We use controls to know it did work and the results are actually negative. That is the value of a positive control. The liver has provided our lab with enough positive controls to last decades.

Somehow I doubt this could brighten that patient’s day. I do know it brightens the days of so many others. All around the world the sick ‘donate’ part of their illness to labs as positive controls. In so doing we can say, without hesitation, when someone does not have the condition for which we have tested.

It is a vital part of the lab practice. It is unfortunate someone is sick but their tissue will remain as a means to help others for years to come.


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