A heart transplant is, for most patients, a last chance at life when all other treatments have failed.
“Heart failure happens after years and years. It’s a disease that slowly takes over your life,” said Dr. Emmanuel Amulraj, a cardiac surgeon who specializes in heart transplant.
Heart failure can make you feel fatigued and short of breath, making it difficult for some people to work. If they can’t keep their job, they may be draining their financial resources as their health continues to deteriorate.
“By end-stage heart failure, you’ve lost a lot. You’re burnt out, and you need a lot of help,” Dr. Amulraj said.
This year, OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria will re-establish its heart transplant program, offering a life-saving treatment as heart failure diagnoses are expected to rise in the coming decades.
New hope for families
When a patient is considered for a transplant, they have reached end-stage heart failure, meaning their heart is weak and struggling to pump blood through the body. At this stage of disease, doctors have very few treatment options.
While a heart transplant replaces the entire heart, the left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, is a mechanical pump that is implanted into a person’s chest alongside a weakened heart to help pump blood.
For some patients in end-stage heart failure, an LVAD procedure can help keep their heart working as they wait for a donor heart to become available.
While an LVAD procedure can add precious months or years to a person’s life, a heart transplant could lengthen someone’s life expectancy from one or two years to 10, 20 or even 30 years.
“That is giving them a second chance at life,” Dr. Amulraj said. “And a lot of them get to do everything they want to do. When you hear these testimonials, you know you’re doing the right thing. You know you did something good when you give them a second chance.”
A hometown approach
When OSF Saint Francis re-establishes its heart transplant program this year, it will become the only medical center in downstate Illinois to offer this life-saving treatment.
“There’s a big void of an area where this service isn’t available unless you go to a big city. It’s hard on families,” said Dr. Barry Clemson, who oversees heart failure treatment throughout OSF HealthCare. “They have expenses. Maybe they don’t know anybody. If they’re from a small town, they might be very uncomfortable in a big city.”
Soon those families will have the option to receive this care in Central Illinois in a city much closer to home, both geographically and culturally.
“We are a community of caregivers,” said Sister Diane Marie McGrew, O.S.F., president of OSF HealthCare. “Our specialists in Peoria are in a perfect position to work with primary care providers and cardiologists throughout our Ministry to provide the highest quality of care to our patients where they need it most – close to home.”
The gift of organ donation
No transplant would be possible if it weren’t for organ donation.
In order for a failing, diseased heart to be transplanted, it must be replaced by a healthy heart from a deceased donor.
“I have children, and I would never wish that decision on any other parent, but at the same time this person’s death was not in vain,” Dr. Amulraj said.
Each time a surgical team recovers a donor heart, Dr. Amulraj said, the operation is begun with a moment of silence to recognize the sacrifice made by the donor’s family in order to make the transplant possible.
“Even in death, there is life. When somebody passes on, I get to carry that gift along,” Dr. Amulraj said. “There is no greater privilege than that.”