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Focus on care, quality drives heart transplant program

Feb. 25, 2016, 8:31 AM

Jeff Darnall, from Princeton, Kentucky, was one of a record number of patients to receive a heart transplant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center this year. (photo by Joe Howell

As the largest heart transplant program in the Southeast, the Vanderbilt Transplant Center is ranked No. 1 in volume for the combined adult and pediatric heart transplant program, according to the latest Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN) data.

In 2015 Vanderbilt University Medical Center performed a record number of heart transplants — 65 — which ranked the Medical Center at No. 5 nationally for the combined adult and pediatric programs.

Jeff Darnall, 53, was No. 53 in the record-breaking transplantation milestone.
The Princeton, Kentucky, resident is a walking billboard for the Vanderbilt heart transplant program, he said.

“I tell people every day about Vanderbilt and the care I received there,” said Darnall. “I’ve been a really sick man and I still have a few bumps in the road to go, but I’ve been upbeat throughout this mostly because the staff there has encouraged me.

“I am doing wonderful. Everything that I had to go up against, I pretty much beat. Vanderbilt has done a terrific job. To say that I am pleased with my care is an understatement.”

Darnall’s journey with Vanderbilt began in 2014 when he was diagnosed with two forms of cancer — multiple myeloma and amyloidosis, a rare disease that produces an abnormal level of protein in the bone marrow that frequently affects organs. Darnall’s heart was affected.

Although in remission for amyloidosis, a stem cell transplant is necessary to sufficiently rid his body of the disease. Doctors determined his damaged heart would not be able to withstand the procedure and placed him on the heart transplant waiting list.

On Nov. 16, 2015, Darnall received a new heart, and with that he moved a step forward in reclaiming his life.

“I told myself from the beginning that there were only two things I could do — either be negative or be positive. There was no in between,” said Darnall. “I don’t feel like it’s my time to leave this world.”

Ashish Shah, M.D., professor of Cardiac Surgery and surgical director of the heart transplant program at Vanderbilt, said Darnall is a great example of the program’s emphasis on quality of life.

“As a team, we really want to continue to invest in how best to deliver quality,” he said. “That’s our challenge moving forward — how do we make our patients’ lives better? Not just how to help them live longer, but have a better quality of life.

“We have made it an institutional commitment to provide advanced cardiac support, and that includes putting together an expert clinical team to continue to move forward in our efforts to remain among the largest transplant centers in the country,” Shah said.

Since the start of the heart transplant program in 1985, there have been 885 transplants (as of Dec. 31, 2015).

According to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients’ (SRTR) most recent statistics, released in December, 2015, patient outcomes continue to be strong at one year and three years: Adult one-year patient survival at 87.65 percent; adult three-year patient survival at 93.10 percent; pediatric one-year patient at 91.67 percent and pediatric three-year patient at 100 percent.

“This part of the country is the epicenter for heart failure and cardiovascular disease from both environmental and genetic factors,” said Shah.

“We want to continue to capitalize on our team’s expertise. What is new and different about our approach to advanced heart disease is the management on a multi-dimensional level.”

Darnall, a retired captain with the Kentucky Department of Corrections, admits that his case was a bit complicated with the cancer diagnosis, heart transplant and future stem cell transplant needs.

He has appreciated the teamwork associated with his various health care needs. He continues his chemotherapy for maintenance for both cancers in anticipation of his stem cell transplant this summer. He travels to Vanderbilt every two weeks for treatment.

“I was given the choice to stay local for all of my care,” said Darnall, who drives four hours roundtrip. “But I knew Vanderbilt was my place. I have had such peace of mind here and it has been well worth the drive.”

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