Lurie Children’s and its cardiovascular-thoracic surgery team reached a remarkable milestone in June, performing a hospital record of three heart transplants within 48 hours. Typically, the hospital performs 2-3 heart transplants per month.
Most of the patients had been waiting several months for a heart, with one patient waiting almost three years. While waiting lists for organs from deceased donors routinely run long, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed organ availability.
Victims of COVID-19, generally, were not qualified to be heart donors, said Lurie Children’s heart surgeon Dr. Michael Mongé, who was co-surgeon in all three of the transplants. Two of the transplants also involved Lurie Children’s two other heart surgeons, Dr. Osama Eltayeb, and Dr. Sunjay Kaushal, head of cardiovascular-thoracic surgery at Lurie Children’s.
The heart transplant recipients range from age 4 to 12. All are stable post-transplant; some have already left the hospital.
Dr. Mongé, who in his surgical career has performed more than 100 pediatric heart transplants, said being a part of the transplant process is not something he takes for granted.
“It is a miracle – it’s the most amazing thing to think you’ve taken a heart, traveled with it, put it in someone who can thrive with it,” Dr. Mongé said.
When a surgeon and team obtain a heart for a pediatric patient who needs one, it means another child has died.
“I am always thankful that a family chose to make an incredibly selfless decision in every parents’ worst nightmare,” said Dr. Philip Thrush, Medical Director, Heart Failure/Heart Transplant Program at Lurie Children’s. “These families have allowed something special and great to come from such a place of sadness and grief.”
When requested, the procurement team takes time to play a favorite song of the donor requested by the family, or read a letter about the deceased donor before accessing the heart. It’s a heartrending moment.
“It’s just an incredible gift,” said Dr. Mongé. “These are families set aside their own grief to help another family.”
Among the patients thriving since transplant is Bennett Sweet, 4, of Machesney Park, Illinois, who had been living on Lurie Children’s 22nd floor for 239 days waiting for a heart.
When his mom Danielle got the call June 2 that a heart was available for her son, Danielle said “shock was an understatement. Then the tears flowed as I realized my son was finally getting his gift of life, and that another family would be grieving the loss of their little one.”
Since the surgery, the family has already been able to move out of the hospital and are staying temporarily in the Ronald McDonald House, near the downtown hospital.
The transplant surgery was already the third heart surgery for young Bennett, who was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, one of the most severe congenital heart defects. After two surgeries at a Wisconsin hospital shortly after he was born, he was referred to Lurie Children’s nationally ranked heart center for further care. He was listed for a heart transplant shortly after and until now, had been waiting for the life-changing procedure.
Danielle said it is remarkable to see the change in her prank-and-football-loving little boy just days from transplant. The day after surgery, he was asking to get up and move around.
“He does not have any pain anymore and can run faster and longer than he ever has been able to,” Danielle said.
The new hospital record is especially extraordinary considering the logistics necessary to make a single transplant happen. Transplant coordinators, and a surgeon, must procure the heart from its deceased donor at an outside hospital. Generally, the team won’t travel longer than four hours by car or plane to pick up a heart. Heart transplant take anywhere between 6 and 12 or more hours, and the heart should not be outside of a body for more than four hours, Dr. Mongé said.
In the case of the three transplants within two days, Dr. John Costello, MD, a fellow in cardiovascular thoracic surgery, retrieved all three hearts with Lurie Children’s transplant coordinators. To travel with the heart once retrieved, it is secured in preserving solution and in an Igloo cooler and flown or driven to Lurie Children’s, he said.
The procedure itself requires at least 11 medical staff members in the operating room -– 1-2 surgeons, anesthesiologist, anesthesiology fellow, perfusionists, 2-3 nurses and transplant coordinators. To facilitate three separate procedures within two days, many providers started shifts early or left very late to ensure uncompromised care to the patients.
“People were willing to come in when they were not scheduled to. They would say, why don’t I come now so you can sleep,” Dr. Mongé said.
By the end of June, the team had completed a total of five transplants.
“A transplant isn’t something we get to schedule when it is convenient, and especially at this time when donor offers are less common, it is hard to turn down an offer as the next one might not be for one to three months,” said Dr. Thrush. “The team’s commitment to the success of the patients and the program is second to none.”