In 2014, the Cleveland Clinic’s Cardiac Transplant Program marked its 30th anniversary, having performed more than 1,600 heart transplants in that time.
About 4,000 heart transplantation procedures are performed annually worldwide. Cleveland Clinic’s program is the fifth largest heart transplant program in the country and the largest in Ohio. The program boasts survival rates of 90 percent, 79 percent and 59 percent at one, five and 10 years.
Improved outcomes are being attributed to a number of factors over the last three decades, including selection of appropriate candidates and donors, improvement in pre-transplant support and better protection from infection.
Randall Starling, MD, MPH, Head of Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplantation Medicine and Medical Director of the George M. & Linda H. Kaufman Center for Heart Failure said the development of new immunosuppressive medications developed in the past 10 to 15 years has dramatically improved transplant survival. These medications resulted in major improvements in survival and allowed patients to be treated with lower doses of steroids or to go completely off of steroids. This, in turn, reduced complications following transplant surgery.
This year, one of the program’s patients celebrates his own 30th transplant anniversary.
A personal journey
H. Hassan of Detroit considers it luck that his 16-year heart health journey brought him to Cleveland Clinic’s Cardiac Transplant Program. As Cleveland Clinic’s 11th heart transplant patient, Hassan recently celebrated his own 30th transplant anniversary and recalls how bleak his future looked before he came to Northeast Ohio.
Hassan was 9 when he developed rheumatic fever. A lack of proper treatment left him with pain in his joints, weight gain and a “messed up hormonal system.” By age 12, his left aortic valve was damaged and he needed a heart replacement, but that kind of medical care was not available in his home of Beirut, Lebanon.
Doctors managed his disease until he was 18, when he traveled to Paris in 1978 to undergo aortic valve replacement surgery.
Hassan said it was “luck” that brought him to the Cleveland Clinic. Two months shy of graduating from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, with a master’s degree in industrial engineering, chest discomfort, a lack of energy and a racing heartbeat led him to the local hospital, where he was turned away for lack of insurance.
That day, a family friend drove him through heavy snow to Cleveland Clinic, where he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy due to an enlarged left ventricle and told he needed a new heart. On his 25th birthday, a match from a 24-year-old man was found and Hassan became the 11th heart transplant patient at Cleveland Clinic.
“I still think about this guy today, even though I never met him,” Hassan said.
A second chance at life
His life gradually returned to normal and he thought about the future. He married seven years later and had two children. Hassan still visits Cleveland Clinic every six months for checkups and jokes that he has outlasted three physicians.
“Before the trip to Cleveland, I was silently expecting to die,” Hassan said. “Even after going to the Cleveland Clinic and doing the surgery, I was worried about my life expectancy. I broke up with my fiancé because I thought I’ll never have a normal life.
“The transplant really changed my prospects on life. I felt that I was born again. Without the transplant I would not have achieved anything and would have died at 25.”