A record 40 people received life-saving heart transplantation surgeries at UR Medicine's Strong Memorial Hospital in 2023. And it places Strong among the 37 busiest heart transplant centers in the country.
That number is an 82 percent increase over the previous record of 22 heart transplants in 2022. University of Rochester Medical Center is among an elite group of transplant centers along with Duke, Vanderbilt and Columbia, and its survival rates surpass the national average.
“Thanks to organ donation, our patients have more time with their families and renewed optimism for 2024,” said Leway Chen, MD, MPH, medical director of the Advanced Heart Failure program. “We’ve seen incredible growth and it couldn’t have happened without teamwork and support from staff throughout the Medical Center.”
URMC is the only center in Upstate New York for heart and liver transplantation, drawing patients from throughout the entire state, and in some cases, across the country for innovative liver transplant care. In total, 212 organs were transplanted last year by the UR Medicine Solid Organ Transplant Program. That includes 104 kidney, 65 liver, two pancreas, and one kidney-pancreas transplants, in addition to the 40 heart transplants.
URMC performed its first heart transplant in 2001 to ensure people living with heart failure can get care close to home and their loved ones.
“This is a tremendous accomplishment for the teams involved in caring for our sickest patients. Their teamwork and commitment to providing the highest quality care is inspiring to us all,” said Spencer Rosero, M.D., interim chief of Cardiology.
Beating the Odds
Penfield’s Denise Champagne is one of the 40 people who received the Gift of Life last year.
“I can’t thank the doctors, nurses and everyone enough for all they’ve done and I’m looking forward to a new beginning,” the local writer and Buffalo Bills fan said.
Diagnosed with a congenital heart defect as a toddler, Champagne has beaten the odds, repeatedly. She was born with Ebstein anomaly. The tricuspid valve, which allows blood to flow between the right atrium and ventricle, was positioned too low, causing blood to back up. Her heart could not pump enough oxygen-rich blood through her body.
Years ago, babies born with heart defects often didn’t survive. Medical and surgical advances have changed their course. And most now live well into adulthood, thanks to specialized care from our Adult Congenital Heart Disease program.
“I wasn’t ever a really energetic kid. I got teased a lot because my lips were blue,” Champagne recalled. Her lips and skin were blueish because of the lack of oxygen in her blood.
Cardiologists in Buffalo, when she was younger, and now at Strong Memorial are diligent about monitoring and supporting her heart health.
Her first valve replacement was performed when she was just 8 years old. A Buffalo surgeon believed a mechanical valve would work. He had trained under Christiaan Barnard, MBBS, the South African surgeon who performed the first human-to-human heart transplant in 1967.
“I was in the ICU and nearly died the day after the surgery. They told my parents to call a priest,” Champagne shared. “But, I’m here today.”
For the first time in her life, her skin was pink. Four months later, she fainted. The valve was failing and needed to be replaced. And over the next 40 years, surgeons replaced it a third and fourth time, and inserted a pacemaker.
Her heart function declined and she was added to the heart transplant wait list at Strong Memorial. Just six months later, the call from the Advanced Heart Failure team finally came. A generous stranger’s donation changed her life on March 9, 2023.
Cardiac transplant surgeons Katherine Wood, MD, and Igor Gosev, MD, PhD, said performing the transplant was extremely challenging due to heavy scarring in her chest from the previous surgeries. “It was a slow, tedious process to get through the scar tissue,” Wood said, because it was “hard as a rock.”
"The strength and expertise of the team allows us to tackle complex congenital heart patients and provide them new hearts,” said Gosev, transplant program surgical director. These patients often have had multiple heart surgeries, making each surgery more difficult to complete.
Peter Knight, MD, chief of Cardiac Surgery, said the team “has done an incredible job maintaining and improving patient outcomes while managing dramatic volume growth during these challenging times for health care. Our patients are most concerned about the quality of care and outcomes our teams provide.”
Points of Pride
The heart transplant team excelled in several areas in 2023:
- An unprecedented flurry of transplants around Labor Day, when the team provided 10 new hearts in just 20 days. It took tremendous coordination and support from care teams throughout the hospital.
- Performed the 350th transplant in the program’s 23-year history.
- Successful outcomes have elevated the program’s reputation, on par with Duke, Columbia and Cleveland Clinic, Gosev said, resulting in new referrals and additional patients on the transplant waiting list. “We’re providing comprehensive care to this subset of patients that’s not available everywhere. This places our program among the elite centers in the country,” he said.
- Heart transport teams can travel further for donor hearts, with acquisition of a novel, mobile, cold-storage system. The SherpaPak, by Paragonix, standardizes and monitors the preservation of organs during transport.
- Continued collaboration with the kidney transplant team for two heart-kidney transplants.
The Advanced Heart Failure program offers comprehensive heart failure care, and is a leader in the use of mechanical assist devices. Strong Memorial has provided nearly 1,000 heart pumps, and is a leader in the nation.
Over the past two decades, surgeons worked closely with device makers to lead clinical studies of the evolving technology, providing cutting-edge devices to Rochester patients first. Cardiac surgeons were first in the country to perform a less invasive technique for implanting the device that reduces complications and improves outcomes.
The heart program is the Upstate leader in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation or ECMO, serving as a resource to large and rural hospitals for the care and management of patients experiencing heart and lung failure.
It also offers a Cardiac Critical Care Transport Team composed of cardiac critical care nurses, respiratory therapists, perfusionists and physicians. The team uses a vehicle equipped with leading-edge technology to assist patients being rushed from outlying areas to the Medical Center for specialty care.
Organ Donors Save Lives
Every organ transplant is made possible by an organ donor who generously provided the Gift of Life. There are more than 500 people waiting for a new heart, kidney, liver, or pancreas transplant at Strong Memorial. A donor can save as many as eight lives.
Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, which is a program of URMC, coordinates organ and tissue donation, and works with 37 community hospitals in the Finger Lakes, Central New York and Northern New York regions.
Anyone age 16 and older can enroll in the New York State Donate Life Registry: online at passlifeon.org; at the Department of Motor Vehicles; applying for health care benefits through the New York Health Exchange; registering to vote; or through UR Medicine’s MyChart patient portal.