Excellence, Strong Research Help UPMC Reach 3,000 Heart, Lung Transplants
William Ferry almost never made it to UPMC for the transplant that would eventually save his life. Nervous about a surgery that had been performed so little in 1980, Ferry contemplated turning the car around and not showing up when word came that a donor heart had been found for him.
More than 30 years later, Mr. Ferry is the longest surviving heart transplant recipient at UPMC. And now he can add a new distinction to his name: One of the 3,000.
Recently, UPMC became only the second transplant center in the country to have performed 3,000 heart and lung transplants. The 3,000 include patients from 43 states and 9 countries and sets UPMC apart as a leader not only in clinical excellence, but also in research. UPMC is one of only a few centers in the country that can boast heart recipients who are at or beyond 30 years post-transplant and also one of the few that performs combined heart/lung transplants.
“What distinguishes us from other heart and lung transplant programs is our years of experience and that’s why this milestone is so important to us. We are tremendously proud of the work we do here,” said Christian Bermudez, MD, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation at UPMC and a McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine faculty member.
A pioneer in transplantation since Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, MD, PhD, came to Pittsburgh in the 1980s, UPMC performed its first heart transplant in June 1980 and first combined heart and lung transplant in May 1982. Its first lung transplant occurred in April 1985, and the area’s first double-lung transplant happened at UPMC 3 years later.
Over the years, UPMC helped in the development of mechanical assist devices used as a bridge to transplant for heart and lung patients, pioneered minimally invasive lung transplant techniques, performed lobectomies when large donor lungs could not fit into smaller patients, and often treated high-risk recipients turned away from other centers because of diseases such as scleroderma and cystic fibrosis. Also, its association with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine led to important research developments in the area of immunosuppressive medications, or anti-rejection drugs, which has transformed the way recipients live their lives after transplants.
“Being an academic medical center, our patients have access to cutting-edge medical trials and devices that they might not get elsewhere,” said Dennis McNamara, MD, director of UPMC’s Heart Failure Transplantation Program and a McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine affiliated faculty member.
Eleven years after his transplant, heart recipient Mr. Ferry returned to UPMC for a second heart transplant. He was in the hospital for just 2 months after his surgery; the first time, it had been 6 months. And even now, he only takes four pills a day, compared to 30 a day he took after his first transplant.
“That was breakfast, all those pills,” joked Mr. Ferry, now 69, of Volant, Pa.
Another unique aspect of UPMC’s cardiothoracic transplant program is its patient-centered approach to care, said Joseph Pilewski, MD, medical director of UPMC’s Lung Transplantation Program. Patients who come in for a transplant not only meet with a surgeon, but also a team made up of pulmonary physicians, nurses, social workers, and pharmacists all dedicated to their care, Dr. Pilewski said. The same team provides comprehensive post-transplant care to minimize complications and optimize outcomes.
“We spend a lot of time with our patients and they really become like family to us,” Dr. Bermudez said. “They entrust their care to us, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
Gretchen Warner became one of the 3,000 in November 2011. The Kentucky resident suffers from scleroderma and other hospitals had refused her a transplant because of complications from the disease. She couldn’t walk far without getting out of breath and came to UPMC for a double lung transplant.
Ms. Warner’s condition worsened and doctors performed a lobectomy on a pair of large donor lungs that didn’t originally fit her frame in hopes of keeping her alive. The rare surgery worked, and today Ms. Warner is back home with her husband and extended family, living life to the fullest.
“I do Zumba two times a week and try and walk a mile every day,” Ms. Warner said.