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Emory Healthcare becomes first health care system in Georgia to perform 1,000 heart transplants

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Janet Christenbury

ATLANTA – A 50-year-old man from Douglasville, Georgia, recently became the 1,000th heart transplant patient at Emory University Hospital, making Emory Healthcare the first health care system in Georgia to reach this milestone. After a four-month stay at the hospital, Tyrone Baldwin left Emory University Hospital last month with a new heart and a new lease on life.

“The first thing I want to do - I want to sleep in my own bed, have a nice dinner and go visit my grandmother, who is 90 years old,” says Baldwin.

Baldwin received his new heart in May and left the hospital less than three weeks later.

“Mr. Baldwin’s ability to have a high quality of life following his heart transplant is excellent,” says Divya Gupta, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology, Emory University School of Medicine. “This is a success story, but much work remains to be done in order to bridge the health disparities gap.” Gupta is the medical director of advanced heart failure and heart transplant at Emory Healthcare.

Gupta says heart failure disproportionately impacts African Americans more than others in the U.S. “A minority of African Americans who are eligible receive a heart transplant. We know there are many more out there who could use this lifesaving procedure. They need to know we are here for them.”

She notes that over the last few years, Emory has made significant progress in diversifying its transplant patient pool to benefit communities of color.

“In recent years, with about two-thirds of Emory’s heart transplant patients being minorities, our program has surpassed other programs of similar size,” says Gupta. “Our team has worked very hard to diminish many obstacles for our patients to receive and have successful heart transplants.”

In 2008, Emory University Hospital celebrated its 500th heart transplant, completing the first 500 transplants over a 23-year period since the program began in 1985. From 2008 to 2021, skilled heart transplant surgeons completed an additional 500 heart transplants, this time in just 13 years. 

“We, at Emory, are committed to providing all Georgians access to the highest quality of care across the spectrum. Our heart transplant program provides the most advanced therapies for heart failure available anywhere,” says Mani Daneshmand, MD, associate professor of surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Emory and director of the Emory Heart & Lung Transplantation, Mechanical Circulatory Support and Emory ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) Programs.

Baldwin was diagnosed with heart failure in 2015 at just 44-years-old. He quickly became a candidate for a Left Ventricular Assist Device (L-VAD), an implanted, battery-operated mechanical pump which helps the main pumping chamber pump blood to the rest of the body. He received the L-VAD a year later, which helped support his heart while he lost weight.

To be a candidate for a heart transplant, patients need to have a body mass index or BMI under 35 for the best long-term results of transplantation. In 2020, Baldwin underwent gastric sleeve weight loss surgery, which helped him lose the rest of the weight needed to be listed for a heart transplant. Once listed, he was notified of possible new hearts three times, but they were not viable. The fourth time he was notified about a new heart, he received it.

Baldwin says his faith, prayer and walking in the hospital every few days helped pass the time and reduce anxiety.

Bridging the health care gap in heart transplantation

From July 2019 to June 2020, 72.3 percent of Emory heart transplant patients were African Americans, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients. In addition, according to the Organ Procurement Transplant Network, from January 2017 through May 2021, Emory transplanted approximately 63 percent minorities with new hearts.

Many racial and ethnic minority populations have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and related risk factors, according to the American Heart Association.

“In the last few years, our multidisciplinary team of cardiologists, surgeons, anesthesiologists, critical care experts, nurses, coordinators, perfusionists, researchers, and allied health professionals have worked tirelessly to increase access to life saving, advanced heart failure therapies, including transplant, for all Georgians,” says Daneshmand, a heart and lung transplant surgeon. “Our one-year survival rate for heart transplant patients is nearly 91 percent.”

Successes and stability of Emory’s heart transplant program

Since 1985, Emory’s heart transplant program has served many residents in Georgia and surrounding states. Two long-time Emory physicians, Andrew Smith, MD, professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology, and David Vega, MD, professor of surgery in the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, have contributed significantly to the successes of this program.

“Dr. Smith and Dr. Vega have been instrumental in building the heart transplant program at Emory and helping to improve the quality of many patients’ lives over the years,” says Thomas Pearson, MD, DPhil, executive director of the Emory Transplant Center and Livingston Professor of Surgery at Emory. “Their expertise, commitment and dedication to the program have helped make it the exceptional program it is today.”

“While 1,000 hearts have been transplanted, we have cared for tens of thousands of patients with heart failure who were not sick enough to need a heart transplant,” says Smith, a heart failure expert at Emory. “Many factors have contributed to the stability of this program, including a culture of collaboration, a culture of caring and many loyal employees and physicians who have dedicated themselves to this specialty and its patients.”

Vega, who has performed nearly half of the 1,000 heart transplants at Emory, attributed the program’s successes to support by hospital leadership and a focus on patient care.

“For 36 years, we have been supported by excellent institutional commitment, which has assisted us in caring for numerous patients who have exhausted all options for end-stage heart disease,” says Vega. “Our multidisciplinary team is uniformly focused on our patients and their families, and that has been our mission and will continue to be our mission.”

Vega goes on to say, “However, none of this work would be possible without the donors and the donor families. It is the incredible gift they give at a time of unexpected tragedy that helps others live.”

As Baldwin continues his recovery, he and his family are grateful for his new heart and the donor family that chose to give so he could live.

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