If you or a loved one are experiencing end-stage heart failure and considering a heart transplant, choosing the right healthcare partner for the procedure is literally a matter of life and death.
The right healthcare provider will not only ensure you’re eligible for transplant and execute the procedure properly, they will also continue caring for you after the surgery to ensure you recover well and are able to live a fulfilling life.
“To get someone who has advanced heart failure, who is at imminent risk of death, to be alive three years down the line, it really is a mammoth task,” said Dr. Behzad Soleimani, interim director of Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and a thoracic and cardiothoracic surgeon specializing in heart transplants. “It requires healthcare professionals who are individually excellent and a lot of teamwork.”
The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center prides itself as a world-class option for heart transplantation, as well as kidney and liver transplantation, for both central Pennsylvania residents and patients who are willing to travel to the region.
Its heart transplant program is regarded as one of the best in the nation by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, receiving high marks in waitlist survival, time spent on the waitlist, and one-year survival rates after transplant.
“We focus on those conventional metrics of quality, like survival, that’s obviously paramount,” Soleimani said, “but we also understand quality of life is important, patient experience is important. Beyond just being alive, patients want to lead a normal life.”
A second chance at life
David Gravette knows all about that extra level of care. Gravette, 56, who lives in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, had dealt with congestive heart failure for some time before his cardiologist recommended he pursue a heart transplant and referred him to Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute for care.
Several hours into his surgery in May 2019, Gravette’s surgeon — a veteran of more than 300 heart transplants — noticed the donor heart he was to receive had a faulty valve. Rather than call off the surgery and put Gravette’s life at risk, the doctor repaired the valve in the middle of the surgery and successfully finished the transplant.
More than two-and-a-half years later, Gravette is still alive and in far better health than before the surgery.
“I don’t think any place would have given as much attention or time and effort to somebody like myself, and that’s the only reason I’m here talking to you today,” Gravette said. “I’m grateful to them, and I’m most grateful to God for putting those people at Penn State Health in my path.”
Going the extra mile
Penn State Health’s medical team works to ensure its patients are cared for before, during, and after heart transplantation, which is why more than 94 percent of its heart transplant recipients still have a functioning transplant one year after the procedure.
Heart transplantation starts with determining whether the patient is a suitable candidate for transplant. Penn State Health has a thorough but expedited process to maximize patients’ chances of survival. Once a patient is determined to be a good fit for transplantation, the next step is to provide quality care to keep their condition from deteriorating. Penn State Health accomplishes this by employing a world-class team of care providers and involving referring cardiologists in the process.
In addition to providing excellent care during this time, Hershey Medical Center employs innovative practices aimed at getting its patients the transplants they need as quickly as possible. For example, it was the first medical center in Pennsylvania to preserve extracted hearts for longer periods of time by using the Paragonix SherpaPak Cardiac Transport System, expanding the search radius for viable donors.
“We are very aware of the psychological impact that waiting has on patients, so minimizing that wait time is something we really focus on,” Dr. Soleimani said.
Once the surgery is complete, they follow up with the patient to ensure their transplants aren’t just keeping them alive but allowing them to live a mostly normal life for as long as possible.
A shared sense of purpose
Penn State Health is able to execute the complex heart transplant process at a high level time and time again because it employs talented surgeons and other care providers and fosters a collaborative culture that allows the best ideas and contributions to come forward.
“The people who work in our heart program feel safe asking questions, and they feel safe coming up with new ideas,” Dr. Soleimani said. “That puts us in a position to improve our processes. Everyone feels engaged with the program — there’s a sense of shared purpose.”
He says that culture makes it easy to retain the best physicians and attract new, talented professionals from around the world who are looking for an environment in which they can thrive.
For patients, that culture leads to a better healthcare experience and, ultimately, better health outcomes.
“For us, the No. 1 thing is patient centricity,” Dr. Soleimani said. “We align everything toward the needs of the patient. We put ourselves in their shoes and in their families’ shoes and steer them on this journey as if they were one of our loved ones.”
If you are seeking a heart, liver, or kidney transplant or may be a candidate for transplantation, call Hershey Medical Center’s transplant program at 717-531-6092 or learn more by visiting pennstatehealth.org.