By Christine McMahon Tumpson | Photographs by Michael Fornataro, from CORE
Organ transplantation is one of the most highly recognized medical specialties in Western Pennsylvania, which means greater access to cutting-edge technologies and individualized care decisions by leading medical teams. With the life-changing procedures on the rise, making the right determinations for each patient at each stage of the transplantation process is crucial, from timing of the disease diagnosis (the earlier, the better) to follow-up care post-procedure.
One of the latest advances in the treatment of organ failure is currently being tested by the medical team at Allegheny Health Network’s Transplant Institute, based at Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh’s North Side. The cardiac surgical/medical team there is breaking ground as the first in this region to successfully implant the latest version of the LVAD, or left ventricular assist device, into a patient. “Currently, there are about 3,000 to 4,000 LVAD devices implanted every year, including about 40 to 50 at AGH,” says Dr. Stephen Bailey, the Director of Cardiac Surgery at AGH who performs the procedure. “If this new device shows superior patient outcomes and better durability, it has the potential to help even more of the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer and die from heart failure every year in this country.”
Eric Daughenbaugh, 45, is one of the patients awaiting a heart transplant at AGH whose name made it to the top of the list for the new LVAD, so “we can extend and improve his quality of life to make it as good as it can be” says Dr. Bailey, gesturing to Eric. They, and Dr. Raymond Benza, sit together in the family waiting room of the new cardiovascular unit at Allegheny General Hospital.
The new version of the heart pump, the HeartMate3, was successfully implanted this January to prolong Eric’s life and improve his health as he awaits a heart transplant.
With years of hereditary heart issues, Eric’s condition has been followed by medical specialists since his childhood diagnosis at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. As part of the consistent team approach at AHN, Dr. Srinivas Murali – Director of AHN’s Cardiovascular Institute – referred Eric to the cardiac surgical team as an excellent candidate for an LVAD.
“Eric is the perfect patient,” Dr. Bailey says. “He is an advocate for himself and for his care. Patients need to be active participants in their care to comprehend and make good decisions for themselves. Eric is thoughtful, inquisitive, and educated about his condition.”
+ LVADs take over the pumping action of a left heart ventricle that is not functioning properly due to cardiovascular disease or injury. The mechanical pump is surgically implanted to assist the weakened heart muscle, enhancing its ability to move oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.
For Dr. Raymond Benza, patient care is all about collaboration and teamwork. “It really is the magic of the program,” the internationally renowned cardiologist explains. As part of his role as the director of the heart transplantation program at AGH, Dr. Benza emphasizes the need for many medical experts in the care of each patient.
AGH is ranked No. 5 nationally for quality heart transplant care, according to Comparion Medical Analytics. It is also a leading center for kidney, liver, and pancreas transplantaion.
Evaluations of organ compatability, timing of transplants, and whether a patient is a candidate requires complicated analysis and decisions that are intended to improve the quality of life, if not always the length. The delicate nature of those determinations requires one important element, according to Dr. Benza: “Excellent communication. Steve [Bailey] and I have a concerted effort and a unique opportunity here at AGH,” he continues. “We have been working for years to be able to create the outstanding team we have in place now. We have hand-picked every team member and are able to take those trainees and assimilate them into this program.”
From the first disease diagnosis to an evaluation for organ transplantation, Dr. Benza and his team are actively looking for ways to increase the availability of transplantation for those who need it as well as general awareness. “It really is multi-faceted,” he explains. “There are many options for people, and we want to take into account multiple aspects of their lives. We want to guide them on ways to improve their lives medically, surgically, holistically.”
Melvin Protzman received a heart transplant five years ago this April 1 after a four-year wait. The heart he was born with was about twice the size of a normal heart. Melvin’s donor was a 24-year-old man who died as a result of a car accident. That man was Brian Hensell, who was fatally injured in North Versailles on his way to work. His mother, Mary Grace Hensell, had worked for 13 years in an educator role at Allegheny General Hospital, and worked with Dr. Stephen Bailey, the AGH cardiac surgeon who performed Melvin’s heart transplant.
Brian was about to turn 25 on April 4, 2011, and because his mother was living in Baltimore, they celebrated earlier that week with a birthday lunch. At that time, Mary Grace was working with the hand transplant program at John Hopkins Hospital, so the subject naturally turned to organ donation. “I just signed my card,” Brian told her, “and while I want to give up my heart and other organs, I’d feel funny if my arms were on someone else.” Mary Grace recalls laughing then, and the serendipity of it as she reflects now. “Days later, he died and was an organ donor, something none of us would have expected.”
At the time of the transplant, Mary Grace’s medical friends took special care of her beloved son, whom most had met at Bring Your Child to Work day during Mary Grace’s tenure at AGH. “They said the moment of the transfer was magical — a mourning and a rebirth. They all became organ donors themselves in honor of Brian.”
Serendipity and magic moments continued when Mary Grace met Melvin through a mutual friend whose cousin had a heart transplant at AGH on April 1. Putting two and two together, Mary Grace called Melvin, and the two shared tears, stories, and dreams for hours. “The best part was when he told me maybe he’d start listening to rap music and craving Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids candy!” she remembers. “I said ‘That’s Brian! Those were his favorites!’”
As for Melvin, he introduced his heart’s creator to his mother and his grandchildren. Best news of all? He now volunteers for CORE (Center for Organ Recovery & Education) to raise awareness and get people to sign up as donors.
Give It Up!
Facts about Organ Donation
With headquarters in Pittsburgh, and more than 6 million people within its territory of Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Chemung County, New York, CORE (Center for Organ Recovery & Education) is one of 58 federally designated not-for-profit organ procurement organizations (OPOs) in the United States.
These are some of the facts from the CORE website. For registration details, and how to become more involved, go to core.org, or call 800.DONORS.7 or 412.963.3550.
• The heart, kidney, pancreas, lungs, liver, and intestines can all be transplanted as life-saving organs, as well as tissues such as bones, ligaments, tendons, corneas, heart valves, and skin.
• Directed or designated donation for a friend or loved one is possible. Living donation is also
• Donation is a possibility only after all efforts to save the patient’s life have been exhausted, tests have been performed to confirm the absence of vital signs, and death has been declared.
Allegheny Health Network, AHN.org.