Leading the Way in Heart Transplantation
In 2010, Cedars-Sinai’s Heart Institute completed 75 adult heart transplants – more than any other medical center in the U.S. This was not only a ‘tremendous accomplishment’ for all the medical staff involved – it gave dozens of patients, like Michelle Johnson, a precious second chance at life.
Congestive heart failure patient Michelle Johnson of San Diego knew it was going to be a good day when she woke up on New Year’s Eve and heard that her sister was about to give birth. She didn’t know her day was about to get even better.
Just a few hours later, Johnson became the 75th person to receive a heart transplant in 2010 at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s transplant system, the transplant team at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute completed more heart transplants than any other.
“Performing 75 transplants in one year is a tremendous accomplishment for the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and the surgeons, cardiologists, nurses, social workers and support staff who dedicate themselves to heart transplantation,” said Eduardo Marbán, MD, PhD, director of the Heart Institute and Mark S. Siegel Family Professor . “It is also a testament to the families of the organ donors who are giving our patients a second chance at life.”
That second chance couldn’t come fast enough for Johnson.
“I had been waiting for a heart for so long and I was so sick, I couldn’t walk more than a few steps before I ran out of breath. I was so discouraged and thinking it was never going to happen,” said Johnson, a single mother of three. “When the nurse told me they had a heart for me, I was so happy and excited and blessed at the same time. I tried to call my family but I couldn’t get in touch with anyone because my sister was in labor and they were all with her.”
Johnson’s nephew, Brandon, was born at 10 a.m. in San Diego. Johnson’s relatives then drove to Cedars-Sinai to be by her side at 5 p.m., when she was wheeled into the operating room for her transplant.
Although only 38 years old at the time of her surgery, Johnson was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2000. Her condition worsened over the years until she could no longer work at her job as a clerk in a San Diego hospital maternity ward. Then her San Diego cardiologists told her that her heart was so weak and enlarged, she needed a transplant.
But finding a heart that matched proved even more difficult than it is for many patients because Johnson’s blood contained an unusually high number of antibodies. Antibodies are small particles in the blood stream that attack foreign bodies, including bacteria or infectious organisms. When a new organ is placed in a patient’s body, antibodies perceive the transplanted organ as foreign and can attack it and cause rejection. Johnson’s doctors in San Diego recommended that she be transferred by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, where Jon Kobashigawa, MD, director of the institute’s Advanced Heart Disease section and a prominent expert in transplant organ rejection caused by antibodies, could oversee her care.
“The team at Cedars-Sinai’s Heart Institute and the Comprehensive Transplant Center has played a huge role in developing the new protocols to decrease antibodies and to prevent new ones from being formed,” said Kobashigawa, DSL/Thomas D. Gordon Chair in Heart Transplantation Medicine. “Keeping antibodies under control minimizes the chance of organ rejection and increases the chance of transplantation success.”
Two weeks after her heart transplant surgery at Cedars-Sinai, Johnson was discharged. She is back in San Diego now and is starting to tackle many activities she was too weak to do before her transplant, such as walking with her sons, driving and cooking.
In a few months, she hopes she’ll be strong enough to go back to school. Now that she has a new heart, Johnson also has a new career goal.
“I’d love to be a nurse,” she said, “and I’d love to work with transplant patients. I want them to know that if I can make it, they can, too.”