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Heart Transplant Patients Play the Waiting Game

For people who suffer from end-stage heart disease, a heart transplant may be the only option. The problem is, there just aren’t enough donated hearts available to satisfy the demand. So, people who

Heart Transplant Patients Play the Waiting Game

For people who suffer from end-stage heart disease, a heart transplant may be the only option. The problem is, there just aren’t enough donated hearts available to satisfy the demand. So, people who need a transplant have to go on a waiting list. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

Every ten days, Lakeside resident Jack Jones has to visit his cardiologist.

Dr. Petere Hoagland: So Jack, angina, chest pain?

Jones: Nope.

Hoagland: Taking nitro?

Jones: Nope.

Hoagland: Okay, and you lost the weight we tried to get you to lose?

Jones: Yeah.

Hoagland: Okay, so the swelling got better?

Jones: Yes

Dr. Peter Hoagland is keeping a close an eye on Jones. That’s because the 66-year-old Jones has end-stage heart failure. 

Jones and Hoagland: Okay, let me listen to your lungs. Spin your feet that way.

Jack Jones had heart bypass surgery in 1979. He suffered a heart attack in 1991. Ten years later, he had another bypass operation, and an aneurism repaired at the same time.

Jones was placed on the waiting list for a heart transplant a couple of months ago.

Jones: I guess my previous cardiologist that I’ve had for 24 years put it the best way that it could be put. He said, I’m all out of tricks, it’s time for a new one.

One any given day, about 4,000 people in the United States are waiting for a heart transplant.

Their medical information is entered into a national database. Their place on the list depends on a number of factors, including the severity of their condition, blood type, and the length of time they’ve been waiting.

Dr. Robert Adamson directs the cardiac transplant program at San Diego’s Sharp Memorial Hospital. 

Dr. Robert Adamson: The people who need heart transplants have exhausted all other therapies, both medicines and surgery. And this is the kind of the court of last appeal -- it’s their last option to sustain their life, both to keep them alive, but to get them back to normal activity again.

Dr. Adamson points out a heart transplant is a treatment, not a cure. Transplant recipients get a new lease on life, but they can also develop a new set of problems.

Adamson: Those problems can be you’re more susceptible to cancer, the heart arteries themselves in the newly transplanted heart can be affected by immunologic factors that could cause them to close, you’re much more susceptible to infections.

Sharp Memorial transplants about 12 to 15 hearts a year. And they’re the only game in town. UCSD closed its program earlier this year, because it didn’t perform enough of the operations to meet minimum federal requirements.

At Sharp, about three percent of transplant patients don’t survive the operation. But for those that do, more than 90 percent are still alive after one year. At five years, about 75 percent are still around. Carol Rice is one of them.

Rice: I didn’t think, five years ago, that I was going to see my 41st birthday. Those two weeks before my transplant, I didn’t think that I was going to live long enough to have that transplant. That’s how bad I felt, that’s how sick I was.

Today, Rice is going strong. She’s married, works full time, and rides horses in her spare time.

Rice: I feel great, you know, a second chance at life, and it’s wonderful.

Jack Jones hopes he’ll get a second chance. He admits the thought of getting a donated heart is overwhelming, at times. But Jones says he tries to stay relaxed about it. 

Jones: You just look at like you’re going to replace a camshaft on an engine. You know, without that it won’t run, and without a heart, neither can I. So, we’re looking for a new one.

Whether Jones will get one in time is another matter.

In 2005, the average time spent on the waiting list was 120 days, and nationwide, 420 people died while waiting.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

Join us for a one-hour special on heart disease, and learn about some of the latest treatments. That’s on Health Dialogues, Friday morning at 10 a.m., on KPBS-FM.