Home Heart Transplant 6 heart transplants in 7 days? Yes, it happened

6 heart transplants in 7 days? Yes, it happened

11 min read


Jordan Fenster


Rockland/Westchester Journal News

Published 6:06 AM EST Nov 9, 2018

Jay Mathews-Dixon couldn’t breathe.

He was in pain, coughing and having trouble catching his breath.

He knew he had pneumonia and an enlarged heart caused by a virus, but that didn’t stop him from chasing down criminals.

Mathews-Dixon is a cop in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and something of a gym rat. “I was always into powerlifting,” he said.

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A few months earlier, his wife away on a business trip, his hands had started swelling and tingling.

“For the first time in my 39 years of life I was being hauled away in the back of an ambulance,” he said.

Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, he tried not to let it slow him down. He took medication and did some physical therapy and went back to work, full time. But his health problems didn’t go away.

“I really was chasing criminals around, making big busts. I paid for it after,” he said. “I continued to deal with this heart issue and of course it was getting worse and worse.”

Eventually, his cardiologist said his options were “limited.”

“At the end, she told me I needed a new heart,” Mathews-Dixon said. “That was tough to deal with. I felt like a whole bomb just dropped on me.”

Fast forward to May. A suitable organ was found and, along with five other patients within the same seven-day period at Westchester Medical Center, Mathews-Dixon had a heart transplant.

“Sometime in the morning, I was sitting in my room and I had a group of doctors come in and from the looks on their faces I knew it wasn't a normal visit,” he said. “They walked in and they couldn't hold their facial expressions. The smiles broke and that’s when I found out I received a donor.”

Transplants aplenty

“One or two of those were really back-to-back kind of transplants,” said David Spielvogel, chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Surgical Director of Heart Transplantation at Westchester Medical Center.

Just to be clear, six heart transplants in seven days is not a common occurrence.

Linda Ohler, associate director of Quality, Regulatory and Education at NYU Langone Transplant Institute, said her facility has occasionally done several heart transplants in short periods of time, even “three in one weekend” and “five transplants in one night, but not all hearts.”

You have to find a suitable heart, and that can take time.

For example, As of Nov. 7 there were 336 patients in New York state waiting for heart transplants, most of them for more than six months and some for more than five years, according to data maintained by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Spielvogel explained that it’s not just blood type that matters — though some blood types are rarer than others — but size, age and geographic distance.

So, when you find a suitable organ for a patient in need, you don’t turn it down.

“We really rarely pass,” Spielvogel said. “The organs are offered to all the centers in the region and then they have an hour to decide.”

It’s a matter of time. All six of the patients waiting for transplants — including Matthews-Dixon — were rated “1A,” in the most urgent need.

“Anytime there's a heart available they know that if the patient doesn’t get the heart, they could die the next minute,” said Alan Gass, Westchester Medical Center’s director of Heart Transplant and Mechanical Circulatory Support. “It’s kind of random. We always have several people waiting for transplants. You never know when you're going to get donors.”

Not just new hearts

Of course, resource management is a concern. There are six surgeons on Spielvogel’s team and more than enough patients to keep them busy.

“Obviously, you don’t want to stress the resources to the breaking point. It is a little tiring,” Spielvogel said. “We’re really committed that if a suitable donor becomes available we never pass. They’re really hard to come by.”

Keep in mind, it’s not just transplants. Spielvogel, Gass and the rest of the cardiothoracic team at Westchester Medical Center are involved with other patients. Gass’ role is to manage the care of patients before and after their transplants, which means relationship management as well as medical care.

“Our team goes to great lengths to get close to the patients,” he said. “That’s the reason I love my job. It’s very rewarding. It can be gut wrenching, but if you do it right you can maintain not only a patient’s medical stability, but emotional stability.”

Spielvogel is “usually the one who opens the recipient,” but he also manages other kinds of heart surgeries. So, even on days with only one transplant, he might be handling a bypass across the hall.

It makes for long days.

“During the day, we would do routine heart surgeries,” he said. “I do have a chair that becomes a bed in my office.”

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Both Spielvogel and Gass have been at it for decades, and while neither minimize the effort involved in doing six heart transplants in seven days, they don’t over dramatize.

“I’ve been doing transplants my whole career. I can’t say I get particularly excited about it,” Spielvogel said.

As for Mathews-Dixon, being one of six patients may have been a blessing. Needing a new heart was an emotional blow.

“I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to help take care of my family again,’” he said. “I automatically went down that dark side.”

Being part of a group of patients helped alleviate those fears.

“You have to be like a family inside there,” he said. “The person next door waiting for a heart, they're going through the same things you’re going through psychologically.”

Months later, Mathews-Dixon is preparing to go back on the job. He’s talking about getting back in the gym, and back on the streets “chasing criminals.”

“I’ve been cleared to go back to work in January,” Mathews-Dixon said. “I plan to be around long-term.”

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