Nearly three decades ago, Valluvan Jeevanandam was six months into his first job as a heart surgeon when a critically ill patient pleaded with him: Get me a transplant today, or I am going to die.
Determined to meet the deadline, yet without an organ match for the 220-pound man, Jeevanandam did what would become a signature throughout his storied career: He looked for an unorthodox solution.
Typically, a heart needs to come from a donor who is within 20% of the patient’s body size. In this case, that would mean a donor roughly between 180 and 260 pounds. But that’s not what was available.
“We found a heart nearby that matched for most requirements but had belonged to an 80-pound child,” Jeevanandam said. “So, I asked the cardiologist, ‘How fast does a heart grow?’”
Confident that science and skill were on his side—and with the patient’s consent to try—Jeevanandam transplanted the child's heart into the man’s body. At first, the small heart raced, unable to keep up with the body’s demands and produce enough power to fully circulate blood. Then, after one week, the care team was able to take the man off a ventilator. After six months, the heart had grown to the normal size found in adults.
At just 32, Jeevanandam had performed the world’s first successful adult transplant using an undersized pediatric donor—a procedure not many surgeons would attempt even today. It was the first in a long line of record-setting accomplishments for the cardiac surgeon.
Now the director of the Heart and Vascular Center and chief of Cardiac Surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine, Jeevanandam most recently led the surgical teams that performed the world’s first back-to-back triple-organ transplants of two 29-year-old patients, both with failing hearts, livers and kidneys. In the 12 months since that historic December 2018 event, the teams performed four more of these multi-organ transplants.
Under Jeevanandam’s direction, UChicago Medicine has now performed 10 of these complex transplants since 1999—more than any other institution.