Two 29-year-old patients from Michigan and Illinois are recovering following back-to-back triple-organ transplants to replace their failing hearts, livers and kidneys, marking a first in U.S. health care history.
The two surgeries, which lasted more than 17 and 20 hours each from Dec. 19 to 21, were performed by a team at the University of Chicago Medicine. According to federal statistics, this marked the first time a U.S. hospital has ever performed more than one of these complex procedures within one year, much less within 27 hours. These cases are the 16th and 17th time this type of triple-organ transplant has been performed in this country.
In each case, the new organs came from a single deceased donor. While finding a match for three organs is significantly more challenging than finding a match for a single organ, physicians typically prefer to use single donors for multi-organ transplants because it is easier for a body to accept foreign tissue from one source.
With the addition of these two cases, no other institution in the world has performed more of these procedures. UChicago Medicine also performed heart-liver-kidney transplants in 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2011.
“Rare transplant cases like these provide a unique and memorable legacy for that donor and the donor’s family,” said Kevin Cmunt, president/CEO at Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network, a not-for-profit organ procurement organization that coordinates organ and tissue donations and provides donor family services and education in Illinois and Northwest Indiana. “We at Gift of Hope take pride in collaborating with our esteemed transplant centers, like the UChicago Medicine, that helps bring the gift of donation to even more families”
While the UChicago Medicine teams had spent nearly two months preparing for these cases, they hadn’t planned for the near-simultaneous occurrence of two triple-organ transplants.
“We never in our wildest dreams imagined both would take place at virtually the same time,” said John Fung, a transplant surgeon and co-director of the UChicago Medicine Transplantation Institute. “Pulling this off can feel like trying to perform a high-wire ballet in the middle of running a marathon. But we were always confident in our patients as well as our team’s abilities.”
UChicago Medicine has a long history of breakthroughs in transplantation dating back to 1904, when cardiac surgeon Alexis Carrel developed the technique for joining severed ends of blood vessels together. This procedure is what made organ transplantation possible, and Carrel received a Nobel Prize in 1912 for his work. The medical center continued advancing the field by pioneering the study of bone marrow transplantation and performing the first successful living-donor liver transplant in the world, first segmental and split-liver transplants in the U.S., and the first pancreas transplant in Illinois.
Sarah McPharlin, a 29-year-old occupational therapist from Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., received her first heart transplant when she was just 12 after contracting a rare inflammatory condition of the heart called giant cell myocarditis. But a variety of complications over the next 17 years led to failure of her transplanted heart. Fluid began to accumulate in her legs and abdomen, damaging her liver and kidney. She consulted with transplant teams at several other hospitals, all of which told her they’d be unable to perform the necessary triple-organ transplant. She was eventually referred to UChicago Medicine.
McPharlin was admitted in early November. By that point, her legs and stomach were swollen from so much excess fluid that she could no longer wear her own shoes or clothing.
“Since we are such a positive family, I don’t think I realized how sick and uncomfortable I really was,” she said. “But now, I feel better. It’s amazing how such simple things we all take for granted can feel so good.”
Two prior donor offers had been accepted for McPharlin, by UChicago Medicine. While various issues prevented each of those transplants from taking place, they gave the transplant team a chance to fine-tune their daunting surgical plan, which ultimately would be needed for not one but two multi-organ patients.