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Thirty-five years later, Stanford surgeon Bruce Reitz recalls first successful adult heart-lung transplant

Reitz_heart-lungThirty-five years ago today a team of surgeons saved Mary Gohlke's life, and in doing so, they made medical history by performing the world's first successful adult heart-lung transplant.

The chain of events that brought the surgical team, led by Stanford cardiothoracic surgeon Bruce Reitz, MD, and Gohlke, a 45-year-old woman dying of pulmonary hypertension, to a Stanford Hospital operating room on March 9, 1981 is detailed in this just-published Q&A with Reitz. From the piece:

Q: How did you become involved in doing heart-lung transplants?

As an undergraduate physiology major at Stanford, I had done research with a professor studying the immunological reactions of the heart. Then, in 1969, when I was still a medical student, I asked about working in the research lab run by Dr. Norman Shumway, chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery and the father of heart transplantation. Eighteen months earlier, he and his team did the first successful adult heart transplant in the United States. He said yes. After I finished my residency in cardiac surgery, I came back to the lab. I asked Dr. Shumway what needed to be done, and he said he’d like to see if we could make some progress in combining heart transplantation with complete bilateral lung transplantation. There were patients with congenital heart defects and patients with severe lung disease who currently could not be treated by transplantation. Mary Gohlke, whose heart had been damaged by her disease, was exactly that kind of patient.

Q: What was the surgery like?

We had a double-sized team of doctors — one for the donor and one for Mary Gohlke. It included Dr. Shumway; Dr. John Wallwork, then a transplant fellow and now chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England; Dr. Edward Stinson, who had partnered with Dr. Shumway for the first heart transplant surgery; and Dr. Philip Oyer, who went on to co-develop and implant the first mechanical ventricular assist device. The appearance of Mary Gohlke’s totally empty chest was indeed a dramatic moment. I wondered, “Is this really going to work out?” But the implantation went smoothly, the heart resuscitated quickly, and lung function was adequate immediately. We finished up about six hours later. Mary made a steady improvement. It was such a transformation for her! To take someone back from the brink of death and give them health — that’s one of the great things about transplant and about being involved in transplant.

Previously: Unusual bridge-to-transplant method helps teen get new heart and lungsParents' heroic effort help 12-year-old daughter receive a new heart and lungsRegular exercise may boost lung transplant patients' heart health, quality of life and Celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the world's first lung-heart transplant
Photo from Stanford School of Medicine

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