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Stephen Rees, Utah statesman, dies at 53

His liver transplant from a live-donor had made history

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Stephen Rees, the first man in the Mountain West to receive a liver transplant from a living donor, died Tuesday at LDS Hospital from an unexpected heart infection.

Mr. Rees, a former state senator, was recovering well from his June 28 surgery. But on Monday, he took a dramatic turn for the worse and died at noon Tuesday. Mr. Rees was 53.

"He developed a very bad infection called endocarditis," said Dr. John Sorensen, Mr. Rees' transplant surgeon. "It was an infection on a heart valve . . . that led to multi-organ failure."

This type of infection is "an extremely rare event," Sorensen said. Mr. Rees' new liver worked through the week after surgery. "He seemed to be recovering. This infection was like a lightning bolt."

Mr. Rees, who served at the Capitol from 1980 until 1996, received new liver tissue two weeks ago from his daughter, Linda Barton. The transplant, which involved a 14-hour operation on Mr. Rees and 12 hours of surgery for Barton, was the first of its kind in the region. Sorensen has completed live-donor transplants in children, but Mr. Rees was the first adult to undergo the procedure. His daughter donated 60 percent of her liver and was determined to go ahead with the operation despite serious risks to herself and her father.

Barton, 26, is doing well, according to Sorensen. She was sent home from the hospital last Wednesday, a week after her surgery. Her liver is expected to regenerate to 95 percent of its original state within several weeks.

"I really want to pay tribute to the family," Sorensen said. "They stuck with this, the whole time. The family came into it with an open, understanding perspective."

Before the operations, Sorensen and his fellow transplant surgeon Dr. LeGrand Belnap found that Mr. Rees and his daughter had perfectly matching liver tissue. Their antigens were so similar that the transplant could have caused Mr. Rees' immune system to attack his own organs, in a rare, little-understood reaction called "graft vs. host" syndrome. The possibility that Mr. Rees might develop the fatal condition made Sorensen cancel the transplant in early June. But by the end of last month, Mr. Rees was so ill that his surgeons decided the transplant operation was worth the risk.

Sorensen said he hopes to keep trying to save patients with live-donor transplant surgery. "Obviously we're pretty torn up about this," he said. "But we're going to continue the program because there aren't enough cadaveric donors out there." The liver is the one organ that can regenerate itself after a portion of its tissue has been transplanted.

Mr. Rees was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1980. Then-Gov. Norm Bangerter appointed him to a Senate seat in 1987, and Mr. Rees, a Republican from Taylorsville, was elected into the Senate a year later. In 1996 he resigned his Senate seat to accept an appointment to the Utah Transit Authority board of directors. For the past three years, Mr. Rees has struggled with sclerosing colingitis, a liver disease brought on by medication he took for ulcerative colitis surgery.

"What I remember about Steve Rees is how hard he worked to understand the issues and to stand up for his constituents," said Utah Senate Majority Leader Lyle Hillyard. He and Mr. Rees were elected to the Legislature in 1980 and both went on to the Senate a few years later. "I know he had a great family, too," said Hillyard.

Rees is survived by his wife of 32 years, Joanne Rees, his children; David, John, Nate, Julie, Debbie, and Linda; and 10 grandchildren.

E-mail: durbani@desnews.com