Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine.
Houston Methodist. Leading Medicine

Methodist J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center - Houston, TX

Living with a heart pump: Transplant candidates anxiously wait for call


Lynda Sparks is a lively woman, a chatty grandmother whose sunny personality pops as she describes how her children and grandchildren came over to her Sugar Land house last weekend to thrash around in her backyard swimming pool.

Only when you look closer do you notice she carries a small black bag slung over her shoulder. And if you ask, she’ll open the pouches to reveal the battery pack and the machinery running the heart pump that keeps her alive.

"I’m the Bionic Woman," she joked.

Actually, she’s one of roughly 3,000 Americans now waiting for a heart transplant. Just like former Vice President Dick Cheney before his transplant, she has no pulse, because a heart pump keeps her blood circulating in a constant stream. And just like Cheney, she has spent months on a waiting list, hoping for a heart that will match her size and blood type.

Cheney’s recent surgery has brought new attention to a surgical procedure that was considered experimental just a generation ago. And it has reignited a debate over whether age should be used as a filter to insure that younger patients receive scarce organs.

About 2,300 patients receive new hearts in the United States each year. About 500 of those heart patients are older than 65.

Transplant specialists say Cheney, who waited 20 months for a new heart, could not have gamed the system to get preferential treatment on an organ waiting list.

"The fact he waited such a long time shows he didn’t get any favors," said Dr. Mariell Jessup, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

Cheney received the transplant Saturday at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., the same place where he received an implanted heart pump that has kept him alive since July 2010.

Cheney suffered severe congestive heart failure and five heart attacks over the past 25 years. He’s had a number of surgical procedures stemming from his heart and circulation problems, including bypasses, artery-opening angioplasty, pacemakers and surgery on his legs.

Houston has long been a Mecca for heart-transplant operations, renowned as the home of pioneering surgeons Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley. More people live with heart pumps in the Houston area than any other city, according to transplant specialists here. The procedure has become common, even for older patients.

"One can honestly say today that an age of 70 years is not a preclusion from a heart transplant or any other organ transplantation," said Dr. Matthias Loebe, the head of the heart transplant program at The Methodist Hospital.

But the simple mathematical odds decree that roughly two-thirds of all patients waiting for an organ transplant never get one. That’s why specialists in the field anxiously encourage people to sign donor cards and let relatives know they want their organs donated after their deaths.

"One thing I was really distressed about was the people who said that (Cheney) might be too old," Sparks said. "And I thought, ‘Well, who are they to say that?’"