It’s November 2004, and I’m in an operating room at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital watching a 57-year-old Alabama schoolteacher slipping into the emptiness of anesthesia. She’s grasping a vision of life, of a grandson nestled in her arms. “I’m holding my baby here,” she says, her voice relaxed and peaceful amid choreographed movements of doctors, nurses, and medical technicians. An anesthesiologist places a mask over her face. She inhales and fades away.

More than six hours later, she awakens in an intensive-care bed and has a transplanted liver, along with the opportunity to again hold grandchildren close and feel love, hope, and humanity. She is among more than 65,000 Americans who have undergone this dramatic ...

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