What does my liver do?

Your liver is the largest solid organ found in your body. It sits on the right side of your stomach and is a reddish-brown colour. The liver weighs about 3 pounds and is protected by the rib cage.

The liver has two sections called the left and right lobes. The gallbladder, parts of the pancreas and intestines sit under the liver. They all work together to digest, absorb, and process food.

The main job of the liver is to filter the blood coming from the digestive tract, before passing it to the rest of the body.

Your liver:

  • Builds special proteins to prevent bleeding
  • Helps fight infection
  • Makes bile to break down food from fats
  • Stores vitamins and minerals
  • Helps to break down proteins in the food you eat
  • Sends hormones to other organs in the body

What is liver failure?

For some people, diseases damage their liver, causing it to stop working properly. This is called liver failure. Liver cancer may also develop as a result of these diseases. Acute or subacute fulminant liver failure occurs when the cause of the failure is unknown.

Common causes of liver failure include:

  • Viral hepatitis – Hepatitis B or C
  • Alcoholic hepatitis – long-term consumption
  • Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)
  • Primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC)
  • Primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC)
  • Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency
  • Drug-induced hepatitis
  • Budd-Chiari syndrome
  • Congenital fibrotic disease
  • Cryptogenic cirrhosis
  • Hemochromatosis
  • Polycystic liver disease
  • Wilson's disease

How do I know if I have liver failure?

If you have liver failure:

  • You may have a loss of appetite
  • You may feel nausea or vomiting
  • You may have difficulty concentrating or with short-term memory
  • You may have a change in your bowel movements (pale stool, dark stool or fatty stool along with diarrhea and dark urine)
  • You may be short of breath or start to feel itchy
  • You may feel sick to your stomach and have muscle cramping
  • You may have trouble sleeping
  • You may begin to bruise easily and have swollen ankles
  • You may feel pain over your liver
  • You may have jaundice (yellow colour of the skin or the white part of the eyes)

Liver failure is difficult to diagnose because of a number of conditions Talk to your doctor, he or she may be able to tell if your liver is failing from your diagnostic tests.

Why would I need a liver transplant?

One treatment option for liver failure is a liver transplant.

If you choose to have a liver transplant, it will improve your overall energy, quality of life and it will give your body back its natural functions. The benefit of having a liver transplant is that you may only need to have a portion of a donated liver to meet the needs of your body. After surgery, most of the liver growth happens within 6 weeks. After one year your liver grows to normal size.

Who can have a liver transplant?

All patients with advanced liver disease can be considered for a liver transplant. Even older patients can have a transplant if they are healthy enough to have surgery and take the medications needed to allow the liver transplant to work properly.

If you are interested in learning more about a liver transplant, talk to your doctor and ask for a referral to see us in the UHN Liver Transplant Program.

After you have been referred by your doctor to the UHN Liver Transplant Program, you will go through an evaluation process to find out if you are eligible for a liver transplant.

If you would like to learn more about the UHN Liver Transplant Program, ask your doctor to fill out the Physician Referral form.

Who can be my donor?

Liver for transplantation can come from:

  • People who pass away and donate their organs (deceased donors). In Ontario, Trillium Gift of Life Network is responsible for managing the retrieval and allocation of deceased donor organs to patients throughout the province.
  • Healthy people who wish to donate a portion of their liver (living donors). Living donor liver transplants are managed by the hospital. Your living liver donor could be your spouse, a family member, a friend, a coworker or even a stranger. Don't count anyone out as a possible donor.

The UHN Liver Transplant Program will work with you to find out if your possible donor is a match with you and can donate a portion of their liver to help you.

How long will I have to wait for a liver transplant?

The amount of time that you may have to wait for a liver transplant will depend on many factors. The team works with you to find out, as quickly as possible, whether you can have a liver transplant.

Once you have been accepted for a transplant, the wait time will depend on:

  1. Whether you have a Living Donor. If you have a living donor your wait time can be greatly reduced. If you are on the deceased donor waiting list, you may wait for several years before you reach the top of the waitlist to receive a liver. This is one of the many reasons for you to consider a living donor transplant.
  2. Your blood type
  3. Your age
  4. Any other health issues you may have, including cardiac and respiratory.

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