What Is Liver Transplantation?

Liver transplantation surgery involves the replacement of a diseased liver with a healthy liver from a deceased organ donor or part of a liver from a living donor. During the surgery, your diseased liver is removed through an incision in the upper abdomen. The donor liver is put in place and attached to your blood vessels and bile ducts. The operation may take up to 12 hours and requires a large amount of transfused blood.

The function of the liver is to:

  • Store vitamins, minerals and sugar
  • Make bile, a liquid that aids in digesting fat and proteins and absorbing vitamins A, D, E and K
  • Metabolize (break down) carbohydrates to produce energy
  • Produce the protein that regulates blood clotting
  • Remove harmful bacteria from the blood
  • Remove toxins from the blood, such as those from medication or alcohol

When the liver stops functioning—known as liver failure—treatment is needed. A team of specialists* will determine if you are a good candidate for liver transplantation. If so, you will be registered with the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) to find a donor liver.

Living donor liver transplantation

In some cases, a living donor may donate a section of liver for transplant to someone else, often a family member or friend. This poses some risk to the donor because of the nature of the operation, but since the liver can regenerate itself to some extent, both parties usually end up with fully functioning livers after a successful transplant.

Liver transplantation

More than 1,700 liver transplants have been performed at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Over the last five years, Northwestern Medicine surgeons* have performed 549 liver transplants, including 72 living donor liver transplants, making the Liver Disease and Transplant Program at Northwestern Memorial Hospital the largest liver transplant program in Illinois and one of the largest in the country. In 2015, Northwestern Medicine surgeons performed 85 liver transplants, including 8 adult living donor liver transplants. Transplant patient and graft outcomes continue to be excellent and compare favorably with local, regional and national outcomes. View our center-specific performance data as well as data of other centers.

Related Resources



  • American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases: AASLD promotes liver health, awareness and resources for the patient and also announces research awards.
  • American Liver Foundation: The ALF offers an array of information about liver disease and transplantation, as well as clinical trials and chapter locations and specifics. The Illinois chapter features an online support group and message board.
  • Coalition on Donation: This organization promotes and provides education about organ donation.
  • Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network: This not-for-profit organ procurement organization works with hospitals and donor families in the northern three-fourths of Illinois and northwest Indiana. The organization is responsible for the recovery of organs and tissue for medical transplantation, as well as for professional and public education on organ and tissue donation.
  • MedlinePlus: Liver Transplantation: Extensive array of information resources regarding all aspects of liver transplantation. Selected and maintained by the National Library of Medicine.
  • National Organ and Tissue Donation Initiative: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is undertaking this initiative to ease the critical shortage of organ and tissue donors by building a national community of organ sharing.
  • Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network: OPTN is a unique public-private partnership that links all of the professionals involved in the donation and transplantation system to increase the supply of donated organs available for transplantation.
  • United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS): Click on "Transplant Living" for information, resources and tools for patients, families and caregivers.
  • U.S. Transplant: Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients: Check Transplant Statistics to see how NMH stands in relation to other transplant centers.

In the spirit of keeping you well-informed, some of the physician(s) and/or individual(s) identified are neither agents nor employees of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare or any of its affiliate organizations. They have selected our facilities as places where they want to treat and care for their private patients.