For busy transplant team, 400th surgery becomes a work of heart

By LaKisha Ladson / Jan. 22-31, 2011

When Sandra Childers hears her heartbeat, she is amazed.

“I didn’t have a pulse for six months,” she said. During that time she wore a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that helped her heart pump blood throughout her body without the sound of a pulse. “Now I’ve got the good, strong heart of a 22-year-old and can actually hear and feel a heart. And it feels wonderful.”

Sandra Childers (right) meets with a few members of the team that handled her heart transplant recently at University Hospital – St. Paul. The group includes (from left) Patricia Kaiser, transplant coordinator; Dr. Mark Drazner; and Katie Fitzsimmons, nurse practitioner for transplant and mechanical assist devices.

On Thanksgiving Day 2010, Mrs. Childers became the 400th adult patient to receive a heart transplant at University Hospital — St. Paul under the direction of Dr. W. Steves Ring, professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery and founder of the heart transplant program at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Ring came to the medical center in the late 1980s with more than 100 transplants to his credit. In addition to the 400 performed at St. Paul, he now has overseen hundreds of adult and pediatric transplants at other Dallas-area facilities.

“You have this oversized, sick heart that is not contracting or squeezing properly and limiting the patient’s life,” Dr. Ring said. “Then they get a new, healthy heart; they get off machines, they get out of the hospital and they can lead a new life. That’s the part that is really exciting.”

That “new life” phrase is what excites Mrs. Childers, a 61-year-old who was diagnosed with a heart virus when she was 16. Mrs. Childers, whose mother died at age 55 because of heart problems, had persistent blackouts until, when she was 34, her heart became so weak that doctors said she had two years to live.

She had to quit her job as a secretary. Years later, because of her blackouts, she would have to give up driving and other everyday activities. Even before her LVAD, she could barely, if at all, hear her heart beat.

Although she had several defibrillators implanted, her congestive heart failure worsened and her private cardiologist referred her to UT Southwestern last year. Mrs. Childers expected an immediate transplant, but doctors said she first had to lose at least 60 pounds.

She was unable to exercise without getting winded, so doctors surgically implanted an LVAD.

“I love people. I love life, and there is a reason I’m still here,” she said. “I’m not a person to give up, but I was scared.”

Her husband, Larry, encouraged her. She got the LVAD implanted, enrolled in a program and classes. By cutting her portions at meals and walking the treadmill she has lost more than 80 pounds since May.

“She was determined to become eligible for a heart transplant,” said Dr. Mark Drazner, one of Mrs. Childers’ cardiologists and medical director of the Heart Failure, Left Ventricular Assist Devices (LVADs) and Cardiac Transplant Program. “I was so proud of her for making lifestyle changes to accomplish this goal.”

Dr. Ring said that since the transplant program began more than 20 years ago, patients have become much sicker and they must wait longer to get a heart.

“That’s where the ventricular assist devices come in,” Dr. Ring said. “It gets these sicker patients out of the hospital until they are healthy enough for transplant while they are waiting.”

With the implanted device, Mrs. Childers was able to return home to wait for a donor match. The day before Thanksgiving she was sitting down to eat lunch when she got the call that the heart of a 22-year-old woman had become available.

Dr. Ring — who now sets direction of the program and ensures that guidelines are met and the quality of the program is maintained — scrubbed in on Mrs. Childers’ surgery.

“That made the surgery a little extra special for me,” she said.

Dr. Ring said reaching the milestone was a testament to the commitment of many, including clinical nurse specialist Patricia Kaiser, who has been with the program since the beginning, and the team of Dr. Drazner and Dr. Dan Meyer, professor of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, whose group is instrumental in implanting the LVADs.

Mrs. Childers’ gratitude goes to the doctors and staff at UT Southwestern who implanted her LVAD and then performed a successful transplant, and she said no words can express her appreciation to the heart’s donor.

“I call it my sweet heart,” she said. “It was sweet of this person to be a donor. I talk to it sometimes and say, ‘You little sweet heart you.’ ”

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Dr. Drazner holds the James M. Wooten Chair in Cardiology.

Dr. Meyer holds the Sarah M. and Charles E. Seay Distinguished Chair in Thoracic Surgery.

Dr. Ring holds the Frank M. Ryburn Jr. Distinguished Chair in Cardiothoracic Surgery and Transplantation.

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