Sentara doctors perform Virginia’s first ‘donation after circulatory death’ heart transplant

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Medical professionals monitor a heart in the Organ Care System (OCS™)(WYDaily/Courtesy of Sentara Healthcare)

HAMPTON ROADS — Sentara Healthcare is leading the way to opening new doors for patients on the list to receive heart transplants.

Sentara Heart Hospital, 600 Gresham Drive in Norfolk, is one of 25 centers nationwide participating in a clinical research trial for a new method of heart transplant called Donation after Circulatory Death (DCD), along with a device that keeps hearts warm and beating during transport. 

Often referred to as a “Heart-in-a-Box,” Sentara Healthcare states that the Organ Care System (OCS) heart is a revolutionary system that preserves donor organs. 

The man who received this new type of heart transplant, Edward Godwin, 60, suffered from longstanding systolic heart failure and was on several medications as well as a defibrillator to keep his heart going. Drugs were no longer enough and he required additional mechanical support.

Godwin was admitted to the Sentara Heart Hospital Intensive Care Unit (ICU) on Jan 4.  There, a catheter was placed in his leg, called an intra-aortic balloon pump, which stabilized him while he waited for a suitable donor heart. Godwin was on the urgent list for a transplant, but with no guarantee that a suitable heart would arrive in time to save him. 

DCD changed the tides for Godwin and allowed doctors to not only find a suitable heart for him but to be able to retrieve and transplant it for him in time. After spending three weeks in the ICU, Godwin became the first patient in Virginia to successfully receive a DCD heart transplant on Jan. 29. 

Sentara has five heart surgeons who perform transplants. Three of the five surgeons were involved in Godwin’s procedure. 

Dr. Jonathan Philpott, Cardiothoracic Surgeon and the clinical trial principal investigator at Sentara Healthcare, was one of the surgeons who performed the transplant with Dr. Clint Kemp and Dr. Eric Unger. Also involved was a state-of-the-art perfusion team as well as members from Sentara’s research staff. Heading the heart failure cardiologist team was Dr. David Baran.

Philpott and several other team members flew out-of-state to retrieve the heart for Godwin and to transport it back to the hospital in the OCS. 

“It was completely surreal,” he said. “It’s almost like living through a science fiction movie you’re watching. There’s this little voice of doubt that says it’s not going to work, but then there’s that little spark of life that returns to the heart, and it starts beating again.”

Before the clinical trial, Philpott explained that heart transplants depended heavily on getting organs from brain dead donors. However, this form of organ donation only provides a small fraction of eligible donors. 

“With brain death donations, you’re in a 4 hour radius to travel. But with DCD, you can travel dramatically further,” he said.

Dr. Philpott also said that the OCS helps preserve the heart and keep it beating until the time of transplantation. 

As for Godwin himself, it has been more than three months since he received his new organ. He is reported to be getting stronger each day while also looking forward to getting back to life as usual. 

“DCD is going to open up a brand new pool of potential hearts,” Philpott said. “Those people who are on our wait lists maybe won’t have to wait for much longer.”

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