Just 28 at the time of her transplant at Stanford Hospital in 1991, Yolanda went on to become the first heart transplant recipient to have a child at Stanford.
Today, her “miracle baby” is 27 years old, and Yolanda is a grandmother. She continues to thrive after receiving a second heart transplant and kidney transplant in 2015.
“Stanford has saved my life not once, but twice,” said Yolanda. “They’ve also given my daughter life. It was unheard of to have a baby back then after a heart transplant. I wouldn’t have my grandson Jonah or the second grandchild due this July. Without Dr. Shumway doing his miracle work, three generations would not be here.”
More than two decades after Norman Shumway, MD, PhD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Stanford, performed the first successful adult human heart transplant in the United States on January 6, 1968, Yolanda’s story began. Fifty years later, heart transplantation often remains the only treatment available for end-stage heart disease.
Yolanda’s heart transplant cardiologist, Sharon Hunt, MD, PhD, a Stanford medical student when the first transplant was performed, said, “Heart transplantation opened up a potential life-saving treatment for people who were dying of heart disease.” Life was “literally hell” For Yolanda, a nagging cold that would not go away was the first sign that something was wrong. After multiple trips to the doctor, she was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. It could no longer pump blood effectively to her body. She went from working full time and enjoying life, to barely being able to walk from one room to another without getting out of breath.
“Life before my first heart transplant was literally hell,” she said. “I couldn’t function as a person on a day-to-day basis with the heart that I had.” When medical therapy failed to improve her condition, Yolanda’s doctor referred her to Stanford. At her first appointment, she knew she was in the right place. “I believed they would make me better,” she said. “I love my entire transplant team. Without them I would not be here.”
When she became pregnant a year after her heart transplant, she asked Dr. Hunt, “Can I keep it?” At the time, the Stanford transplant team discouraged patients from conceiving a child because of the risk of complications such as rejection, infection, and graft dysfunction, a life-threatening complication that affects the heart’s ability to circulate blood effectively. But Yolanda was willing to do whatever it would take to have a baby, and Dr. Hunt was ready to help. “That’s how I had my daughter Monique,” said Yolanda. “She is the first baby born to a heart transplant recipient at Stanford. The delivery room was packed with 28 people, all of whom wanted to witness the historic birth.”
Yolanda was fine for years with her new heart and Dr. Hunt continued to care for her. But she had a setback in mid 2015 when her heart and kidneys began to fail. Her blood pressure periodically plummeted, causing fainting spells. The first occurred in the middle of the night. Yolanda woke up on the floor, her dog persistently nudging and licking her. His bark alerted her daughter that something was wrong. “He is my furry savior,” said Yolanda. She received a second heart transplant on November 9, 2015. Because her body was also showing signs of kidney failure, her Stanford transplant team made the decision to simultaneously conduct a kidney transplant.
Stanford at “heart” of innovation
Today, approximately 50 patients undergo heart transplantation at Stanford each year, and the program has performed more than 1,200 heart transplants over five decades. Stanford remains the oldest, continuously operating heart transplant center in the world, and its physicians are responsible for many of the innovations that continue to improve long-term survival. Research conducted by Dr. Shumway and his team led to the use of the anti-rejection drug cyclosporine and to an innovative biopsy technique that allows doctors to spot rejection in a transplanted organ earlier and administer anti-rejection measures to save the heart.
Stanford doctors also performed the first successful simultaneous transplant of the heart and lungs, and the first successful implantation of a left ventricular assist device. A Stanford pathologist created the classification system used to determine rejection, and Stanford researchers developed a noninvasive way to detect rejection earlier than previously possible.
“Stanford really is the birthplace of heart transplantation,” said Kiran Khush, MD, a transplant cardiologist who works as part of a team of physicians, nurses, physical therapists, social workers, dieticians, and pharmacists to care for patients before, during, and after heart transplantation.
For Yolanda’s daughter Monique, Stanford is simply home. “It’s where my son Jonah was born. It’s where I was born,” she said. “And it’s where my mom got both of her new lives. Stanford is definitely a special place for us.”