Two months ago, doctors in Australia transplanted a “dead heart” — a heart that had stopped beating inside a donor’s chest — into a 57-year-old woman, reports the BBC. The operation, which has been deemed success, was unlike any other, because for the first time, it didn’t involve a brain-dead donor who’s heart was still beating.
“WHEN WE WARM IT UP, THE HEART STARTS TO BEAT.”
Normally, heart transplants call for the removal of a still-beating heart that’s put on ice for a few hours until it can be placed in a recipient. But two months ago, that didn’t happen. Doctors removed a heart that had stopped beating, and placed in a machine called a “heart-in-a-box.” That machine then revived the heart by pumping warm blood into it. “We removed blood from the donor to prime the machine,” cardiologist Peter MacDonald told WebMD. “We then take the heart out, connect it to the machine, warm it up, and when we warm it up, the heart starts to beat.” Once the recipient was ready, the doctors disconnected the warm heart from the machine, and placed it in the patient.
The technique effectively eliminates the current requirement for brain-dead patients. This means it could one day significantly increase the number of hearts available for transplant. It’s also far easier on the heart than conventional techniques, because it reduces the number of heart cells that die during the transplant process, and limits the amount of damage caused by lack of oxygen.
So far, only three people have received a “dead heart,” so the technique isn’t about to become a staple in the average hospital just yet. Still, for the people who received these hearts, the procedure is nothing short of amazing. “I feel like I’m 40 years old — I’m very lucky,” said Michelle Gribilas, the first patient to undergo the procedure. “I’m a different person altogether.”