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Pioneering transplant patient readies for Heart Walk

Sep. 17, 2015, 8:42 AM

Heart transplant recipient Bonnie Davis, here with Tom DiSalvo, M.D., left, and Walter Merill, M.D., is taking part in the Oct. 3 Greater Nashville Heart Walk. (photo by Susan Urmy)

In April 1986 Bonnie Davis of Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, became the first female patient to receive a heart transplant at Vanderbilt University Hospital. On Oct. 3, she will return to campus to participate in the Greater Nashville Heart Walk.

Davis was only 39 when she developed cardiomyopathy, a viral condition that causes the heart muscle to swell, and ultimately to fail.

“I had never had heart trouble, never smoked, never drank. One night I woke up and I was so hot. My legs were swollen and huge. I never did have any chest pain,” recalled Davis, who is now 68. “I was pretty sick and couldn’t understand what was happening to me.”

LifeFlight transported Davis from Maury Regional Hospital to Vanderbilt, where she would reside for eight months while she waited for a new heart and ultimately recovered from her transplant.

Her surgeon was Walter Merrill, M.D., a junior faculty member at the time who had arrived at Vanderbilt three years earlier from Johns Hopkins.

Davis fondly remembers Merrill and her cardiologist, Richard Rodeheffer, M.D., who has since left Vanderbilt.

“I tell my husband that God sent me two angels.”

Merrill, professor of Cardiac Surgery, also performed coronary artery bypass surgery on Davis’ husband, Dickie. The pair continues to come to Vanderbilt for their care, administered primarily by cardiologist Tom DiSalvo, M.D., associate professor of Medicine.

Merrill is always happy to see the Davises in clinic and says he is thrilled to see how well Bonnie has done since her transplant nearly 30 years ago. She was only the fourth patient to undergo the heart transplant at Vanderbilt.

“It’s amazing. I never thought it would be 29 years later and she’d still be surviving. It’s somewhat unusual for a patient to survive as long as she has given the inevitable problems that come up such as infection and rejection. Also, the medicines we have the patients on to prevent rejection have their own set of consequences,” Merrill said. “Her survival is dependent on her and her attitude. She has always been a model patient and has done exactly like the doctors told her to, to the letter of the law.”

“When someone has a heart transplant, I feel like in my heart that we are left here for a purpose, and without Dr. Merrill and the person who donated the heart, I wouldn’t be here at all. So I like to do my part,” Bonnie Davis said.

The Davises, who are now great grandparents, will participate in the Heart Walk together.

The Heart Walk is the annual fundraiser for the American Heart Association. Proceeds support public education about heart disease and fund important cardiovascular research.

The walk is 3 miles around the Vanderbilt campus (with a 1-mile survivor route option). Activities begin at 8 a.m. with a breakfast and celebration for transplant recipients, family and friends. The walk begins at 10 a.m. Parking is available in Lot 75 (corner of Natchez Trace and Children’s Way) or the West Garage (corner of 25th Avenue and Children’s Way).

To join a Vanderbilt team, please visit

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