Last year, 359 liver transplants were made possible by live liver donation. It’s a number that has grown over the past three years, and experts say it may be evidence that more people are learning about what can be, for some, the only life-saving option.

Ashley Ray, 21, suffered from liver disease from the age of nine until she was 19, when her liver failed.

“I deteriorated very fast, and Dr. Hemming said I wouldn’t have made it waiting on the transplant list,” Ray recalled.

Ray’s uncle, Keith Garcia, found out he was a blood type match and he volunteered to donate half his liver.

“I felt confident that I would survive what the surgery entailed,” Garcia said.

Alan Hemming, M.D., chief of transplantation at University of California San Diego Health, said live liver donation allows patients to get transplants before they get too sick.

“It doesn’t take away the risk of transplantation, it just takes away the risk of dying on the waiting list,” Hemming explained.

In an eight-hour surgery, Hemming and his team removed 60 percent of Garcia’s liver and transplanted it into Ray. Both halves of Garcia’s liver will grow back to nearly full-size.

“It was just a once in a lifetime experience to see my uncle standing on the other side with half of his liver inside me, keeping me alive,” Ray said.

Donors risk complications or death, but Garcia recovered quickly, returning to work in two weeks.

“Having her that close to death, it was traumatic,” Garcia said. “So now that it’s all behind us, I’m not dwelling on it too much.”

Ray is now a biochemistry student aiming to be a doctor.

Despite the live liver option, the American Liver Foundation says about 17,000 people are on the waiting list to get a liver transplant. Only a third of them will get a liver, and every year, as many as 1,700 people die waiting. Doctors say because of the increased risk, live liver donation is still rare. Less than five percent of liver transplants have a live donor.