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Clinical Milestone: Excellence, Strong Research Help UPMC Reach 3,000 Heart, Lung Transplants

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 15, 2012 – William Ferry almost never made it to UPMC for the transplant that would eventually save his life. Nervous about a surgery that had been performed so little in 1980, Ferry contemplated turning the car around and not showing up when word came that a donor heart had been found for him.
More than 30 years later, Ferry is the longest surviving heart transplant recipient at UPMC. And now he can add a new distinction to his name: One of the 3,000.
This month, UPMC became only the second transplant center in the country to have performed 3,000 heart and lung transplants. The 3,000 include patients from 43 states and nine countries and sets UPMC apart as a leader not only in clinical excellence, but also in research. UPMC is one of only a few centers in the country that can boast heart recipients who are at or beyond 30 years post-transplant and also one of the few that performs combined heart/lung transplants.
“What distinguishes us from other heart and lung transplant programs is our years of experience and that’s why this milestone is so important to us. We are tremendously proud of the work we do here,” said Christian Bermudez, M.D., chief of cardiothoracic transplantation.
A pioneer in transplantation since Dr. Thomas E. Starzl, M.D., Ph.D., came to Pittsburgh in the 1980s, UPMC performed its first heart transplant in June 1980 and first combined heart and lung transplant in May 1982. Its first lung transplant occurred in April 1985, and the area’s first double-lung transplant happened at UPMC three years later.
Over the years, UPMC helped in the development of mechanical assist devices used as a bridge to transplant for heart and lung patients, pioneered minimally invasive lung transplant techniques, performed lobectomies when large donor lungs could not fit into smaller patients, and often treated high-risk recipients turned away from other centers because of diseases such as scleroderma and cystic fibrosis. Also, its association with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine led to important research developments in the area of immunosuppressive medications, or anti-rejection drugs, which has transformed the way recipients live their lives after transplants.
“Being an academic medical center, our patients have access to cutting-edge medical trials and devices that they might not get elsewhere,” said Dennis McNamara, M.D., director of UPMC’s Heart Failure Transplantation Program.
Eleven years after his transplant, heart recipient Ferry returned to UPMC for a second heart transplant. He was in the hospital for just two months after his surgery; the first time, it had been six months. And even now, he only takes four pills a day, compared to 30 a day he took after his first transplants.
“That was breakfast, all those pills,” joked Ferry, now 69, of Volant, Pa.
Another unique aspect of UPMC’s cardiothoracic transplant program is its patient-centered approach to care, said Joseph Pilewski, M.D., medical director of UPMC’s Lung Transplantation Program. Patients who come in for a transplant not only meet with a surgeon, but also a team made up of pulmonary physicians, nurses, social workers and pharmacists all dedicated to their care, Pilewski said. The same team provides comprehensive post-transplant care to minimize complications and optimize outcomes.
“We spend a lot of time with our patients and they really become like family to us,” Dr. Bermudez said. “They entrust their care to us, and we take that responsibility very seriously.”
Gretchen Warner became one of the 3,000 in November 2011. The Kentucky resident suffers from scleroderma and other hospitals had refused her a transplant because of complications from the disease. She couldn’t walk far without getting out of breath and came to UPMC for a double lung transplant.
Warner’s condition worsened and doctors performed a lobectomy on a pair of large donor lungs that didn’t originally fit her frame in hopes of keeping her alive. The rare surgery worked, and today Warner is back home with her husband and extended family, living life to the fullest.
“I do Zumba two times a week and try and walk a mile every day,” Warner said.
Some of the 3,000 also include:
  • Janice Letterle had a heart transplant on September 27, 1997. The then-36-year-old thought she was suffering from allergies because she was having trouble breathing. Instead, she was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy and needed a heart transplant. Seven months after being on the transplant list, a donor heart was found. “I just think it’s really exciting that this is able to be done,” said Letterle, 51, of Allison Park. “It definitely saved my life.”
  • Bill Stein received a double lung transplant on Aug. 8, 2002. He had been diagnosed as a child with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes mucus to build up in the lungs and other organs. The transplant didn’t cure his disease; however, it improved his quality of life and inspired him to pursue a career in healthcare. Stein now works as a physician assistant in the intestinal transplant program at UPMC and shares his story with others. “Everyone needs that hope,” Stein said. “You can present yourself to the patient and show them that with having a transplant, you can get back to your quality of life. You can get out and get the quality of life you’re supposed to have.”
  • At 20 years old, Ben Collins could barely walk up a flight of stairs while a student at the University of Pittsburgh. He was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens and enlarges the heart muscle. He had seen his older brother undergo a heart transplant and knew he would eventually need a new heart. In November 1997, after being on a ventricular assist device, Collins got a new heart. “I was very happy that I went through the experience. I would do it again if it meant saving my life. It’s made me who I am today,” Collins said.
  • Mary Ann Wahl couldn’t lift her 4-year-old daughter. Because of her restrictive cardiomyopathy, even simple activities like brushing her teeth or chewing food left her breathless. In November 2000, after approximately two years on the organ waiting list, a donor heart was found for Wahl. Now, the Mt. Lebanon resident regularly walks, is a member in her church choir and became the active mom she always wanted to be.  “Usually after the surgery, there’s a sense of sadness that someone had to die for you to get a transplant,” she said. “Eventually, you understand that you are not the cause of that person’s death. You grow to admire the selflessness of individuals and their loved ones who consent to donate their organs so others can live.”
A video about the cardiothoracic transplant program at UPMC reaching the 3,000th transplant can be found at

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