This month marks the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. adult heart transplant, spearheaded by Norman Shumway, M.D., at Stanford Hospital Jan. 6, 1968. Since then, the procedure has saved more than 60,000 lives, including that of Los Altos resident Susan Roberts, chairwoman of Stanford’s Heart Transplant Patient and Family Advisory Council.
Roberts worked as a commercial banker at Citibank and enjoyed an active lifestyle before experiencing shortness of breath one night while on a church mission trip at an Apache Indian reservation near Globe, Ariz., in 2012.
“One doctor diagnosed it as bronchitis,” Roberts said of her condition. “Upon getting home, however, I went to Urgent Care at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, and they responded immediately. An EKG machine was brought in, and perhaps within 30 minutes, I was taken by ambulance to El Camino Hospital.”
Doctors at El Camino diagnosed Roberts with giant cell myocarditis, a rare and lethal form of heart muscle inflammation, and she was transferred to Stanford Hospital. A Stanford medical team treated her with a ventricular assist device – the TandemHeart, a pump placed on the outside of the leg, with a tube through the groin to keep the left ventricle pumping. The device can work for approximately 10 days, she noted.
Doctors considered implanting a left ventricular assist device, but it became less viable when the right side of her heart deteriorated. An artificial heart also was ruled out, mostly because her chest cavity was smaller than the space needed for one to succeed. The only choice left was to register for a donor heart.
“Many people are on the list for years and years, but I was blessed to receive a heart offer in three days,” Roberts said.
The transplant occurred March 24, 2012. After that, Roberts sent thank-you letters once every six months for three years to the anonymous donor’s family through a social worker. She didn’t know the donor was a Latino man who died in a drive-by shooting until finally receiving a reply from his ex-wife, with whom he had three children.
The ex-wife told Roberts that it “still hurts to know he will not be able to walk his daughters down the aisle,” but she said she was glad to know her ex-husband’s heart enabled Roberts to attend her son’s wedding.
Roberts also learned from the ex-wife that the donor was from Puerto Rico.
“That certainly caused me to follow the sad events of the hurricane in Puerto Rico far more closely, wondering if perhaps his parents or other family members are there,” she said.
Post-transplant, Roberts must take 24 pills daily, including immune-suppressants and supplements, but in general she leads a normal life, she said.
Roberts expressed deep gratitude not only for the donor, but also for her doctors, nurses, husband, son and other family members for the care and moral support she received.
Another Los Altos resident expressing gratitude is Adam Vasser, who underwent a heart transplant Dec. 11, 1998, at age 14. Vasser spent his 14th birthday at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital after being diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy – viral infections that damage or weaken heart muscles.
Vasser had no idea how he contracted the virus. He pitched in an All-Stars baseball game only days before experiencing stomach-flu-like symptoms while departing for a family vacation in Montana in summer 1998.
The teen first sought medical attention in Montana for swollen ankles. He checked in to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital for further testing upon his return, he said, adding that he experienced cardiac arrest during a biopsy and was unconscious for 10 days.
After surviving the coma and heart transplant, Vasser suffered post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder, a B-cell (a lymphocyte responsible for producing antibodies) proliferation due to therapeutic immunosuppression.
Vasser was successfully treated with Rituxan, also known as Rituximab, as part of a phase 2 clinical trial. His father happened to work for Genentech, the company that produced the medication, Vasser said.
Despite missing all of eighth grade and half of his freshman year, Vasser graduated from high school and attended college, where he majored in history. He taught social studies for a few years and now works in guest services at Stanford Hospital.
“Because I was a patient, I know health care could be confusing,” he said of his career choice. “I’m happy to guide (patients) through the process.”
In his spare time, Vasser is a Little League umpire. He and his father, Mark, were honored recently with the Ted Barrett Amateur Umpire Award Winners.
“He never missed a year umpiring,” said Vasser’s mother, Karen. “He was on the field months after his transplant, and has umpired for 23 years continuously.”
Both Roberts and Vasser urge local residents to sign up for organ donation.
According to the nonprofit Donate Life America, every 10 minutes, another person is added to the national transplant waiting list.