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Costa Rican doctors conduct first skin transplant in Central America

December 17, 2010

A nine-year-old boy from Limón became the first person to undergo a skin transplant in all of Central America, after the Children’s Hospital opened the country’s first skin bank in June.

According to doctors, the boy had been hospitalized for more than four months for cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin. At first, doctors attempted to use the boy’s own skin in treating his condition, but when that wasn’t successful, they resorted to skin from donated cadavers.

Marlen Herrera, director of the newly-opened skin bank at Children’s Hospital, said the boy is recovering and should be on his way home in the next month.

With his surgery on Nov. 24, he became the first child to benefit from the newly-created skin bank.

“The skin bank has been needed for a long time,” said Herrera. She said the hospital receives at least one burn victim a day, and while most can be treated with their own skin,  the more serious cases require donations.

“Up until now, we have been using skin donated from the parents, but because children require multiple treatments, this isn’t always reliable,” she said.

The Children’s Hospital opened the doors of the skin bank in June and received its first donation in August.

“Our first goal was to save skin,” said Patricia Venegas, a coordinator at the skin bank. “We were worried about Costa Rican culture and whether they would be willing to donate the skin of family members.”

In Costa Rica each year, there are approximately 3,500 cadavers that have the potential to be donors. Cadavers must arrive within 24 hours of death and be from people who were between 18 and 65 years old. According to Herrera, five cadavers have so far been donated.

“It’s important for people to understand that even after death, their bodies can be useful in saving the lives of others who suffer burns,” said Raul Bonilla, Chief Forensic Pathologist.  “We tend to be very attached to the body and let death take all its pieces, even though those bodies can serve to help others in need.”

While skin banks exist in Mexico and Cuba, this is the first to open in Central America, according to Venegas, and already they’ve received requests for donated grafts from neighboring countries.

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