U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (left) speaks with Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam after an October 2021 ceremony honoring the University of Chicago Medicine heart transplant team. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

HYDE PARK — When Al Brown contracted COVID-19 in 2020, he was taken to University of Chicago Hospital and needed supplemental oxygen to recover. Weeks later, he was back at the hospital with a more serious diagnosis: heart failure caused by coronavirus.

For people like Brown, 31, it might ordinarily take months to receive a heart transplant. But he was on the wait list only 12 days before getting one of the first coronavirus-related transplants in the nation from UChicago doctors in October 2020.

Heart transplant patients at UChicago Medicine received hearts faster than they would’ve at any other transplant program in the United States, and all survived at least one year after surgery, according to national data.

Half of UChicago Medicine heart transplant patients underwent surgery within 1.1 months of being placed on the waiting list, based on Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients data on procedures from October 2020 to April 30.

That’s nearly six months faster than the national median of 6.9 months.

Three in four patients received new hearts within 2.8 months — nearly 10 months faster than the next-fastest program in the nation.

“We are by far the fastest to transplant,” said Valluvan Jeevanandam, heart and vascular center director. “A lot of that is because we have very advanced transplant surgeons.”

In addition, all patients lived at least one year after their surgeries. That’s because the 65-plus professionals on the heart transplant team “find diamonds in the rough” by spending hours identifying usable donor hearts other hospitals may reject, Jeevanandam said.

“We used to say we take parts that other people don’t use, but we don’t want to give the impression that these are bad hearts,” he said. “Obviously, when you have 100 percent survival [after one year], those hearts actually work.”

The survival rate also hinges on continued care after surgery, which requires an “intelligent and motivated staff that works well together,” said Catherine Murks, nurse practitioner of the hospital’s post-heart transplant section.

“We’re often their first call for every hiccup that happens when they’re out in the real world dealing with life after a transplant,” said JoDell Powers, a post-transplant nurse practitioner.

Nurse practitioners Caroline Murks (left) and JoDell Powers are celebrated at Thursday’s ceremony. Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago

Forty-two percent of UChicago’s heart transplant patients were Black, the highest proportion of Black patients among programs in the report.

That’s not strictly a function of the hospital’s placement on the overwhelmingly Black South Side, as up to 30 percent of its patients come from around the nation and world, Jeevanandam said.

“We’re able to provide the care to our community that is here on the South Side of Chicago, and we’re able to provide the same level of care to the international patients and the national patients … who seek out the University of Chicago,” said Sean Pinney, director of advanced heart failure and transplantation.

The staff serve communities that are suffering “double standards in health care exposed by coronavirus” and are “a beacon to all the health care facilities in the world,” said Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat representing the area.

“Everyone who is born has a right to the best health care that we can provide, regardless of race, creed or color,” he said.

Rush was emotional as began his speech by recounting his wife Carolyn’s care at UChicago Medicine after she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. The hospital’s cardiovascular doctors gave Carolyn “seven additional years” of life through their hard work, Rush said.

Rush praised UChicago Medicine professionals for their commitment and talent in achieving the high national rating, but their success goes deeper than the data, he said.

“It all comes to bear in the personal relationships, the interactions, the difficulties and the challenges, the good times and the bad,” Rush said.

Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients data informs federal agencies’ decisions on transplants, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

The registry rated 143 heart transplant programs nationwide in its most recent report. UChicago Medicine was one of 14 to receive the highest rating.

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