April 6, 2017

Heart transplant program reaches major milestone

Surgeons at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) performed five heart transplants in four days to place the institution among an elite group of transplant centers in the country — reaching 1,000 heart transplantations.

Jerry “Quinton” Choate and his wife, Kim, before his recent heart transplant, which he hopes will help him get back to pursuing his favorite hobby — fishing. (photo by John Russell)

Surgeons at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) performed five heart transplants in four days to place the institution among an elite group of transplant centers in the country — reaching 1,000 heart transplantations.

VUMC is home to the second busiest heart transplant program in the country and ranked No. 1 in the Southeast region for volume for its combined adult and pediatric procedures, according to data released by the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN).

“This is a well-earned distinction for our heart transplant team, further validating their expertise and commitment. Such success requires sustained clinical excellence and is only possible through the altruism of those who generously donate their organs so that others may live. Our reward is helping grateful patients whose lives have been saved through the miracle of transplantation,” said C. Wright Pinson, MBA, M.D., Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Health System officer for VUMC. “I am very proud of our team and want to congratulate them on this achievement.”

This marks the second consecutive year that VUMC’s program held its national ranking.

“This (reaching 1,000) is an outstanding milestone for the heart transplant program and for the institution as a whole, one that only a small number of other institutions have attained,” said Thomas Wang, M.D., Gottlieb C. Friesinger II Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine.

“It reflects an amazing amount of dedication, talent and hard work from all the individuals at Vanderbilt who have cared for these patients.”

For Jerry “Quinton” Choate, 58, a recent heart transplant recipient, the cluster of surgeries put him a step closer to getting back to his favorite pastime — fishing.

A resident of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, Choate said he was on his way to Chattanooga for routine blood work when he got the call from Vanderbilt that a heart had been located for him.

“When I got off the phone with them, I called my wife, Kim, and told her to get up and get ready. We are headed to Nashville,” he said. “I was excited, scared and relieved all at the same time. I wasn’t expecting to get a heart this soon, but I am so thankful. I am looking forward to things getting better for me.

“I was able to fish a little bit last year,” he said. “But nothing beats being out on the boat all day. I love the sport of it. I don’t keep them. I throw them back. As long as I am on the water, I am happy.”

In April 2016, Choate received a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) as a bridge to transplant after a heart attack caused him to go into congestive heart failure. The past year has been one of waiting and preparing for this moment.

“On March 17 he was upgraded to the top of the list and that is when I packed,” said Kim. “All we needed to do was head out … It all feels so surreal, like I need someone to pinch me. On the ride here we talked a bit about the donor family and that this was truly a gift of life. Now his job is to take care of it.”

Choate and the other recipients are recovering.

“This accomplishment reflects the commitment the physicians and administration has placed on making Vanderbilt Medical Center one of the best cardiac transplant centers in the country,” said Michael Petracek, M.D., Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Surgery and chair of the Department of Cardiac Surgery. “Studies have shown that high volume programs have consistently better long-term results and we are now the second busiest center in the United States.”

In 2016, a record 92 transplantations were done, while 2015 saw 65. This year, the program has already performed 25 heart transplantations (between Jan. 1 and March 29).

It’s a far stretch from 1985, when Walter Merrill, M.D., professor of Cardiac Surgery, performed the center’s first heart transplant. That year there were two transplantations.

“When one looks at all the activity in transplantation today it is amazing to think back and reflect on how much progress has been made and how far we have come,” said Merrill, Senior Associate Chief of Staff, Vanderbilt University Hospital.

“We now have better drugs to prevent and treat organ rejection and better treatments to support the patients while they are waiting for a transplant.”

The program plans to host a special event on June 1 to celebrate the 1,000th transplant milestone.