The first thing Linda Karr asked her doctor after her heart transplant surgery at Stanford Hospital was, "How is my heart donor doing?" That question is as exceptionally rare as the surgery that made it possible.
Last month, as part of a domino transplant procedure, Karr received the heart of Tammy Griffin, who in turn received a new heart and lungs from a deceased donor.
Organs of any type available for transplant are in short supply; the waiting lists outpace the supply by large margins and some people die waiting. Heart-lung combinations are even more rare because a set of heart and lungs is usually split up so that the organs can benefit two people instead of just one. But a domino transplantation of a heart-lung and heart benefits two people. A highly unusual procedure, it has only been performed at Stanford eight times before, most recently in 1994.
Witnessing the first meeting of this unusual transplant pair earlier this month was emotional for all of those there, including me, a veteran of writing about these life-saving surgeries. I got to watch as Karr, 53, promised Griffin, 51, that she'd take good care of her new heart, telling her, "Even though we were strangers before today, you'll always be part of me."
Receiving new lungs had been critical for Griffin, who has cystic fibrosis. Her lung capacity had diminished so much that she was on oxygen full time, unable to do much at all. Her heart, however, was still functioning well.
"Her heart was an innocent bystander pushed out of its normal position in the middle of the lungs as her right lung shrank and the left one expanded," said Joseph Woo, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Stanford Health Care who oversaw and coordinated the surgical teams that conducted the domino procedure. That displacement made a heart-lung transplant the only viable option for Griffin, said Woo.
"The extraordinary work of Dr. Woo and his team demonstrates the very best of an academic medical center -- where our research informs the development of revolutionary treatments like the domino procedure, which we then use to save the lives of our patients," Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the medical school, commented.
As for Griffin, knowing that she was able to help someone else gives her great joy. "I didn't want my heart thrown away," she said, "and I thought, I'll be able to meet the person who has my heart! How many people can say that?"
Previously: Thirty-five years later, Stanford surgeon Bruce Reitz recalls first successful adult heart-lung transplant, NBC Dateline to explore the "extraordinary situation" facing one Packard Children's transplant family and Unusual bridge-to-transplant method helps teen get new heart and lungs
Photo. of Tammy Griffin (left) hugging Linda Karr, by Norbert von der Groeben