A second chance at life: HCA Healthcare patient receives liver transplant on her birthday

Woman wearing gray top standing by a tree
Irma Ybarra, a mother and grandmother, received a life saving liver transplant at HCA Healthcare affiliate Methodist Hospital | Specialty and Transplant in San Antonio, Texas.

This National Donate Life Month, HCA Healthcare – which comprises 185 hospitals in the United States, including 11 transplant centers across the country – is encouraging you to consider registering as an organ, eye and tissue donor. Even with recent advances in transplant medicine, more than 100,000 men, women and children in the U.S. are still waiting for lifesaving organ transplants. Their hope is dependent on the generosity of others whom they may never meet. Below, HCA Healthcare patient Irma Ybarra shares her transplant story, reminding us about the importance of signing up to become a donor.

Irma Ybarra, a mother and grandmother, from El Paso, Texas, sings “Born to be Alive,” a song she requested be played as she went into surgery. It was the last thing she remembers before her life-saving liver transplant that happened to be scheduled on her birthday. But her birthday took a dramatic turn when she coded in her hospital room the morning of her scheduled surgery.

Irma started feeling sick during the summer of 2020. She was vomiting, nauseated, her normally soft skin was rough, scaly and itchy, and her enzyme levels were severely elevated. The whites of her eyes had turned yellow. At one point, she was trembling, drooling and on the verge of passing out. After several trips to the ER and doctor visits, her doctor in El Paso realized her liver was failing. In September, they told her she needed to get to HCA Healthcare affiliate Methodist Hospital | Specialty and Transplant in San Antonio as soon as possible because she may not have long to live.

“They told me ‘If you drive there, you won’t make it. Dr. Foster and his team are expecting you,’” said Irma Ybarra.

Irma’s mother and husband booked airline tickets immediately. They checked into the ER at Methodist Hospital | Specialty and Transplant on Sept. 21. The following day, the team ordered a stress test, lab work, EKG, and other evaluations to determine Irma’s MELD score, which is the Model for End-Stage Liver Disease that determines the severity of a patient’s liver disease. Her scores put her at the top of the liver transplant waiting list.

“We were able to complete her evaluation quickly because she was fairly young and didn’t have any prior medical problems,” said Dr. Preston Foster, medical director of the liver transplant program at Methodist Hospital | Specialty and Transplant. “She was a high priority patient because of her high MELD Score.”

The following day, they found a match for a liver donation. She was scheduled for surgery on Sept. 24, Irma’s birthday. That morning, Irma went into cardiopulmonary arrest in her hospital room.

“I was holding her, and she said ‘I feel weak.’ That’s when her eyes rolled back in her head. The nurses ran in and started chest compressions.”

Irma’s mother was distraught. “I thought ‘Oh my God! My baby girl is dying in front of my eyes.’ Then the nurses asked me to step out of the room. I prayed and prayed. They brought her back. On her birthday.”

It took about 30 minutes for the team to resuscitate her. Later that day, doctors determined she was still fit to receive the scheduled transplant. The staff brought Irma balloons and sang happy birthday to her before they wheeled her off to surgery. Irma asked that they play “Born to be Alive” as she went into the OR. Irma’s liver transplant surgery was a success.

“It’s a miracle really. I died and came back to life on my birthday. Dr. Foster gave me the best birthday present ever,” said Irma.

A few days after surgery, her natural skin color was returning. She was laughing and joking with her mom. Irma spent several months living in an apartment in San Antonio, to make her twice-weekly appointments to the liver clinic. She is now back at home with her family and extremely grateful to the team that saved her life.

Exterior of hospital building.
HCA Healthcare affiliate Methodist Hospital | Specialty and Transplant is located in San Antonio, Texas is known for having the largest living donor kidney transplant program in the nation.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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