Something happened on December 3, 1967, that changed the direction of modern medicine. That Sunday nearly 50 years ago was the day the first human heart transplant was performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard.
As with any major medical advancement, this one was preceded by years of steady progress in developing the surgical techniques, tools and medications that paved the way for the first procedure’s success.
Today’s health care professionals continue to explore and innovate to find new ways to improve care and give patients suffering from severe heart disease a second chance. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. claiming a shocking 600,000 lives every year.
One heart patient who’s grateful for a new lease on life due to continuing medical advancements in heart care is James Smith, 58, of Burlington. He arrived at Aurora Memorial Hospital of Burlington in 2014 after suffering a severe heart attack caused by a blockage of blood flow to his heart.
His type of heart attack is called a STEMI (ST-elevation myocardial infarction). STEMI heart attacks often leave a patient disabled or claim the patient’s life. A STEMI is typically caused by long-term high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which help create the heart blockages. Lifestyle choices such as poor diet and exercise habits also contribute to the creation of heart blockages.
In James’ case, at the hospital he received immediate professional medical care and had quick access to innovative treatments. Because of the dire severity of his heart blockages, he needed bypass surgery. He was airlifted to Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee for a quadruple bypass procedure.
During heart bypass surgery, the surgical team takes a healthy section of vein from the patients’ leg or an artery from the chest or wrist. The surgical team then attaches the vein or artery to the blocked coronary artery, just above and below the blockage. This bypass of the blocked artery allows blood to once again flow to the heart.
You may have heard of a double, triple or quadruple bypass. The name describes how many individual heart arteries are bypassed during the surgery. A quadruple bypass is normally the most we perform, and that’s what James needed.
The results of bypass surgery are usually excellent. Many patients remain free of heart disease symptoms for years. Lifestyle changes and medicines can help prevent arteries from becoming clogged again.
However, since the damage to James’ heart was so severe before the successful bypass surgery, his heart still couldn’t meet the needs of his kidneys, liver and lungs. His body was going into shock. Another medical solution was essential for his survival.
That’s when James’ treatment intersected with the treatment of another James.
Active 47-year-old bicycling enthusiast James Ramsey of Brown Deer was admitted to Aurora Medical Center in Grafton in 2016 with a racing heart and extremely low oxygen in his body. In spite of the fitness his regular cycling had built up, he was promptly diagnosed with acute heart failure.
Medicines administered as his first treatment did not remedy his condition. It soon became clear that James’ heart could not keep up with his body’s needs. His kidneys, liver and lungs began to shut down and he was starting to go into shock. He was airlifted to Aurora St. Luke’s for additional treatments.
Both James S. and James R. needed more advanced treatments to replace the blood-pumping work of their failing hearts.
Each James was placed on a device called ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). The device helps get blood to patients’ vital organs to help fend off shock. ECMO can stabilize patients with failing hearts long enough for more definitive treatment options to be implemented.
After a few days, the next treatment step for both patients was the transition from ECMO to the surgical placement of a lifesaving LVAD (left ventricular assist device).
LVAD is a computer-controlled mechanical heart pump. The pump is placed inside the patient’s chest and the controller is kept outside the body connected to the pump by cables. LVAD works with the heart to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. LVAD doesn’t replace the heart — it just helps the heart do its job.
The LVAD can be the difference between life and death for a patient whose heart needs rest after open-heart surgery, whose heart is simply too weak to keep up with blood circulation needs or a patient who is waiting for a heart transplant.
The first heart transplant recipient was Lewis Washkansky, a South African grocer. Just 10 months later, the first heart transplant in the American Midwest was performed at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. The recipient, Betty Anick from West Allis, at the time became the longest living heart transplant recipient in the world.
Now both James S. and James R. are among the 2,000 patients in the U.S. who receive a heart transplant each year.
James Smith received his heart transplant at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center about two years after his heart attack.
James Ramsey received his heart at Aurora St. Luke’s about four months after his bout with acute heart failure.
Both procedures were successful and added to the total of about 850 heart transplants already conducted at Aurora St. Luke’s.
Mr. Smith is doing well and returned to his job at Lake Geneva Country Meats. He’s enjoying his time with family.
Mr. Ramsey is back to his job as a property management expert and is active again and appreciating time with his family.More information about heart transplants is available online. Heart transplant surgery is a true life saver. However, the transplant can only take place if there’s a heart donor. Everyone who would like information about being an organ donor can get the full story online anytime at OrganDonor.gov.