Aurora marks 50 years since first heart transplant

Posted at 10:14 PM, Oct 11, 2018

It's been nearly 50 years since the first heart transplant in the Midwest took place at Aurora St. Luke's hospital. Five decades later, the hospital now performs twice as many heart transplants as the majority of transplant programs worldwide. 

With advancements in the medical field, patients undergoing heart transplants are now expected to survive, which was not the case in 1968. 

Dr. Frank Downey, director of cardiac transplantation at Aurora St. Luke's says the first group of heart transplants all failed. 

"The unique part of Betty Annick, who was our recipient here at St. Luke’s, she lived the longest of the early cohort of those patients in the United States," said Downey. "She lived almost nine years which was extraordinary."

Because the rate of failure was so high, Downey says heart transplants came to a halt. Until the early '80s when new medication greatly improved outcomes. 

When Gary Leo's heart condition started to rapidly decline in the last year, he was forced to stop practicing as a neurologist at Columbia St. Mary's. 

"It's hard to say what the outlook would have been," he said. "I would have expected to die within the course of two to three years without a transplant."

He was put on the transplant list in January, and in June he got the call. 

"I didn’t expect to get the heart this quickly," he said. 

After spending eight days at St. Luke's, he returned home. Now he says he hopes to go back to his neurology practice, something he didn't think he'd get to do. 

"I think you have a sense of, you got a second chance and you need to give back and do something positive," he said. 

The survival rates now following a heart transplant are much more optimistic, Downey says. 

"Fifty percent of our patients will live more than 12 years," said Downey. "We have patients who are more than 20 years out."

Downey himself has performed over 350 heart transplants in his career. 

"Suppressing the immune system back in 1968 was essentially nonexistent," he said. "It was pretty much if the recipient tolerated the organ or not."

In the next 50 years, Downey says the research is focused on less medication for patients. 

"We’re trying to improve tolerance, meaning if we can use fewer drugs to prevent rejection, the patients will live even longer," he said. 

Between 3,500 and 4,000 people are on the waiting list for a heart each year in the U.S. Downey says there never seem to be enough donors to meet the need. He encourages those interested in organ donation to have conversations with their families ahead of time.