May 3, 2012

Surprise gift for new mom: a new heart

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Windy Hill with her daughter Gracie. Six months after giving birth, Hill went into surgery to receive a mechanical assist device and came out with a new heart.

Surprise gift for new mom: a new heart

Windy Hill, 38, of Kingsport, Tenn., was wheeled into the operating room at Vanderbilt University Hospital on April 20 to receive a mechanical pump to aid her failing heart and save her life.

While the surgical team was preparing to start the operation, the surgeon’s cell phone rang. On the other end was the transplant coordinator, alerting him that a donor heart had been located.

With Hill still under general anesthesia, her fiancé, Joseph Berry, completed the consent paperwork and anxiously waited to see if the new heart would be a good match for her. Against all odds, it was.

“What happened that morning for Miss Hill met the classic definition of a miracle,” said cardiac surgeon Rashid Ahmad, M.D. “She delivered a baby six months ago and had antibodies which would pretty much reject most donor hearts.”

Hill began to experience heart trouble after she gave birth in October. She experienced chest pain and was taken to the cardiac cath lab where doctors discovered a tear in her left anterior artery.

Hill underwent emergent coronary bypass in Johnson City, Tenn. She was transferred to Vanderbilt in January.

“She recovered with her life, but the damage to the heart was so great the consequences of that kept on worsening,” Ahmad said.

She was scheduled to receive the Heart Mate II left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to help circulate blood throughout the body because her heart was too weak to pump blood on its own.

“We had prayed the night before surgery that we would get a heart instead of an LVAD,” Hill said.

Hill woke up in the cardiovascular intensive care unit 48 hours later and learned she had a new heart. Berry delivered the good news to her.

“I was overwhelmed, emotional,” Berry said. “I was really excited for Windy. I couldn’t wait to tell her.”

“I didn’t believe it,” Hill said. “I had to reach down and feel for the pump and when I realized it wasn’t there, I knew I had a heart.”

Hill said she is most looking forward to spending her first Mother’s Day with baby Gracie, whose photos adorn Hill’s hospital room.

“Vanderbilt is the only place in town where this scenario could happen,” said Simon Maltais, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Cardiac Surgery and surgical director of Mechanical Support Devices and Heart Transplantation at Vanderbilt.

“With our robust VAD program offering VAD as bridge-to-transplant or destination therapy, and our quickly growing heart transplant program in place, we are able to offer our sickest patients the full range of options to ensure a positive outcome for them.”

Maltais projects that Vanderbilt will reach at least 35-40 adult heart transplants a year, placing it among the top programs in the nation. It is currently the largest program in the Southeast, he said.

Achieving this goal is possible only through the generosity of organ donation. There are currently 72,789 active candidates on the organ transplant waiting list, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

“We pray for the family of the donor to find comfort and peace knowing that their loved one gave life to our family, saved Windy, and gave our 6-month-old daughter a second chance at life with her mother. Words will never be enough to express our thanks and gratitude,” Berry said.