Patient Story

Rose Parade reunites surgeon, transplant patient after 25 years

Among the 46 floral entries that dazzled the millions of Rose Parade watchers on the street and at home was one special float dedicated to those individuals whose invaluable donations of organs, corneas or tissue have saved and healed others in need.

One of the "Stars of Life" whose portrait, made of floral materials, was featured on the 2009 Donate Life float was 2-year-old Matthew Bemis, who drowned tragically in 1984. Riding on that same float was Lily Mandel Allen, the woman whose life was saved when Matthew's parents, Milt and Janis Bemis, decided to donate their son's liver 25 years ago.

As an infant, Lily - born Lily Mandel of East Syracuse, N.Y. - suffered from life-threatening liver tumors that were suffocating her other organs. Her dramatic recovery following an experimental liver transplant in 1984 at UCLA Medical Center made her a nationally recognized case study for physicians all over the country.

A few days before the parade, Lily Allen, with her new husband, Brian, and the Bemises, returned to UCLA and reunited with the surgeon who made it all happen, Dr. Ronald Busuttil. Lily and her entourage arrived at the new Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in a black limo on Dec. 19.

Waiting eagerly near the entrance to welcome her with a planter of bright red poinsettias was Busuttil, now chair of the Department of Surgery and chief of liver transplantation and of liver and pancreas transplantation. Surrounding him were surgeons and nurses from his renowned liver transplant team.

"You don't look any different! You're the same as 25 years ago," Busuttil joked, handing her the poinsettias. Then he turned to the rest of the group who came to meet Lily, many of whom had helped treat the gravely ill toddler. "These are all the folks who contributed to your care," he told her.

Milt Bemis (from left) and his wife, Janis;
Dr. Busuttil holding a photograph of Matthew Bemis;
and Lily and Brian Allen. [Photos:]

The reunion also gave Lily an opportunity to visit the pediatric ICU and briefly meet with pediatric patients, some of whom are staying at UCLA for multiple organ transplants.

"This is the first time I've seen Lily in 25 years," Busuttil marveled. She was his ninth transplant. "And we're close to 5,000 now - it's amazing," he said.

In fact, Busuttil had never reunited with any of his patients so long after having performed their life-saving operations. But there may be plenty of other opportunities for such reunions. More than 60 percent of UCLA's liver patients who received transplants 25 years ago are still alive, Busuttil noted.

Milt Bemis was clearly moved by the UCLA hospital visit. He still remembered how he and his wife were completely unaware of who had received their son's gift, until a few days later when they saw a television news report about Lily's then-rare transplant surgery. "We knew right away who received Matthew's liver," he said.

Since then, they've been in contact with Lily and even attended her Aug. 8 wedding to Brian Allen - on the anniversary of her transplant.

On Saturday, Dec. 20, Busuttil joined Lily and the Bemises to help decorate the floral portrait of Matthew on the "Stars of Life" float. UCLA Health Systems is sponsoring Matthew's floragraph, in partnership with the Nebraska Organ Recovery System.

Probably no one felt the impact of the reunion more than Lily herself. "It's the most incredible privilege," she said, overwhelmed. "To be able to meet him with my donor parents and (with) my husband right here is even more wonderful!"

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