PEORIA — More than a decade after suspending its heart-transplant program, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center is bringing it back.
The Peoria hospital did heart transplants until 2006, then stopped the program due to declining volume. But the demand has been on an upswing, according to hospital President Bob Anderson.
Thanks to more early diagnosis and advancements in treatment for heart failure, a condition in which the heart becomes too weak to function efficiently, more people with this disease are living longer, Anderson said.
With that longer survival comes an increased demand for heart transplants, mechanical heart pump — called ventricular assist device, or VAD — procedures, or VAD procedures followed by an eventual transplant, he said.
The Saint Francis program will become the only heart-transplant program in Illinois outside Chicago.
Carle, for example, collaborates largely with Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago, for its advanced-heart-failure patients who need transplants or VAD procedures, though that's a matter of patient preference and insurance coverage, according to Carle spokeswoman Laura Mabry.
Anderson said it was considered important to re-establish the availability of heart transplants closer to home for people living downstate, not only for patients who need the transplants but for their families who have to make repeated long drives.
"The feedback that we were getting from patients who received heart transplants in Chicago but lived downstate is that it was a burden on their family and their support system," he said.
Saint Francis already does kidney and pancreas transplants, and state regulators approved on Wednesday its application to restart the heart-transplant program. Anderson said it will take 12 to 18 months to get the program fully up and running, and plans for now are for it to serve adult heart-transplant patients only.
Available sooner — probably this summer — at that hospital will be ventricular-assist-device procedures, Anderson said.
Saint Francis previously offered VAD procedures, sometimes used as a bridge treatment for patients waiting for donor hearts, but also stopped doing those procedures sometime after discontinuing heart transplants, Anderson said. Making VAD procedures available is a necessary part of a heart-transplant program, he said.
The number of people with heart failure was projected to rise by 46 percent by 2030, according to a 2017 report by the American Heart Association. The group attributed the increase both to medical advancements leading to people living longer and epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes, two risk factors for heart failure.
A heart transplant is considered to be the last resort for people with end-stage heart failure after other treatments have failed. But the supply of hearts available for transplants doesn't nearly keep up with the need.
As of late last year, there were more than 100,000 Americans considered to be sick enough to need heart transplants, according to the heart association.
Nationally, there were 3,408 transplants done last year, and there are thousands of people currently on the waiting list for a heart, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing.
Anderson said Saint Francis anticipates doing 10 to 20 heart transplants a year once the program is fully established.
In the years the hospital previously had a heart-transplant program, from 1987 to 2006, it successfully completed 197 heart transplants in all, according to the application the hospital filed with the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board.
Saint Francis' first heart-transplant patient from its previous program was 55 at the time and is now 87, Anderson said.
Medical advancements such as better drugs that prevent the body from rejecting a transplanted heart are contributing to longer heart-transplant survival, he said.
"We are very excited to see that success, and the survival rate only continues to improve decade over decade," Anderson said.
Don't ignore the signs
Heart failure is sometimes mistaken for normal aging. Some common symptoms:
— Shortness of breath during exertion or when lying down.
— Swelling in legs, ankles, feet or abdomen.
— Persistent coughing or wheezing.
— Fatigue or weakness.
— Rapid or irregular heartbeat.