February 17, 2006

Treatment ‘bridged’ gap for heart transplant patient

Featured Image

Patient Nikki Jones, 20, talks with her mother Melanie Rogers while recovering from her transplant.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Treatment ‘bridged’ gap for heart transplant patient

When Nikki Jones looks at the stack of photos her mother took of her a few days prior to heart transplantation, she plainly states, “I look like I'm dead.”

Her parents nod solemnly in agreement with the assessment.

Jones, 20, was diagnosed at age 5 with viral cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle. For 15 years, there were no health problems until a recent summer trip to Florida.

The Murray, Ky., resident and her younger brother, Jon, got sick, but while he quickly mproved, she worsened. She spent the last five months, with the exception of a few weeks, in five different hospitals.

The family came to Vanderbilt University Medical Center knowing a heart transplant was imminent.

But in early February Jones became very ill — too sick to be on the transplant list.

“They were doing everything they could and nothing was working for her,” said Melanie Rogers, Jones' mother. “Her breathing became labored, her heart rate went up and she became septic. They told us she would not make it through the night.

“But by Friday morning (Feb. 3), with no options left, the doctors told us about a new device. Nikki would be the first person here to receive it, and by Friday night the hospital was flying people and the device in. It was our only hope.”

The device is called the TandemHeart, a left ventricular assist support system reserved only for the sickest of cardiac patients. Jones was too weak to undergo surgical intervention. She became the first in the region to receive the device. The TandemHeart is inserted percutaneously and doesn't require the chest to be cut open.

This was the only option available in hopes of saving Jones.

“They said it was just a temporary fix and that we would need to make a decision about what to do in a few days. Time was running out and if she did not improve with this device …”

But Jones' condition changed. Within days of implantation, Jones' heart function recovered. The device did the work for her heart — pumping blood throughout her body.

“She was on the list for 29 hours and 45 minutes,” said Gene Rogers, Jones' stepfather. “We did a whole lot of praying. God was in this every minute. It sure is nice to have all smiles in here instead of worry.”

Jones was told prior to receiving the TandemHeart that she would need a transplant to survive.

“I started crying,” she said. “I told them that if I had to have it to live, so be it. I didn't want to die. I guess I was scared.”

The last thing Jones recalls is heading for a CT scan on Feb. 2. She received her new heart on Feb. 8. Once she awoke, her parents told her what had occurred over the past six days.

“I told her she had a transplant,” Melanie Rogers said. “She didn't believe me. I told her to look at her chest and she said — 'Oh, I guess I did.'”

“I always prayed that God would use my children,” Rogers said. “I never knew the capacity with which that would happen. Here she was allowed to be used to benefit all the other people who will come after her.”

Jones, who received the heart of a 9-year-old girl, continues to improve daily and has been moved to a step-down unit at VUH. Although she will be released from the hospital, she will spend at least two months in Nashville for post-transplant followups.