The beat goes on
After rare transplant, woman can hear her heart in another
Tammy Griffin had cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes mucus to build up in the lungs and other organs. Her lung capacity had diminished so much that she was on oxygen full time. She needed new lungs, and because her damaged lungs had displaced her heart, a heart-lung transplant was her only option.
Linda Karr had right ventricular dysplasia, a genetic disease that causes a dangerously abnormal heart rhythm. She could hardly walk down a hallway without stopping to rest. She needed a heart transplant.
On Feb. 1, both women got the organs they needed. Griffin received a heart and lungs from a deceased donor. And Karr received Griffin’s heart. It is only the eighth “domino transplant” of a heart-lung and a heart performed at Stanford, and the first one since 1994.
One surgical team removed the heart and lungs from the deceased donor, a second one implanted them in Griffin and a third team implanted her heart in Karr. Joseph Woo, MD, professor and chair of cardiothoracic surgery, oversaw and coordinated the three teams, as well as leading the second team.
Griffin’s heart “was an innocent bystander pushed out of its normal position in the middle of the lungs as her right lung shrank and the left one expanded,” says Woo, the Norman E. Shumway Professor in Cardiovascular Surgery. In other words, it could work just fine for someone else.
“I didn’t want my heart thrown away,” says Griffin, “and I thought, I’ll be able to meet the person who has my heart! How many people can say that?”
“We hope this story will raise awareness of how scarce organs are,” says Woo. “People are waiting and dying on those transplant lists. We would like to see that change.”
Karr’s first question for her doctor after surgery was, “How is my heart donor doing?” Six weeks later, she found out, when she and Griffin met for the first time. “I feel as though a world of possibilities opens up now for my future — kind of a second chance in life,” Karr told Griffin.
“Me, too. I feel the same way,” Griffin responded.
Griffin had the opportunity to hear her old heart beating inside Karr’s chest, and Karr promised Griffin she’d take good care of it. “Even though we were strangers before today,” she said, “you’ll always be part of me.”