Hospital celebrates Long Island’s first transplant
After suffering a massive heart attack last year, Yvonne Fleming never imagined finding herself sitting on a panel alongside doctors while feeling the heart she just received via a transplant beating in her chest.
But that is exactly where Fleming was on March 15, at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital (SABHH) in Manhasset.
The 63-year-old Brooklyn woman became Long Island’s first heart transplant recipient on Feb. 19 and now, less than a month later, Fleming was overwhelmed as she talked about the journey and care she received from the heart professionals.
“Before the surgery, I couldn’t see my heart beating; but after I could see my heart go ‘boom-boom,’” said Fleming as she held back tears. “That feeling was so immense and so beautiful, I can’t explain it to you. I am blessed that I got this heart. I’m sorry someone lost their life, but I am going to honor this heart, I’m going to respect this heart.”
Fleming thanked her doctors for seeing her through from beginning to the end—or better yet, the start, of her new life. Joining Fleming were Gerin Stevens, MD, cardiac transplantation at SABHH; Syed Hussain, MD, lead heart procurement surgeon at SABHH; and Brian Lima, MD, director, heart transplantation surgery at SABHH.
The doctors discussed the step-by-step process of evaluating a patient for potential transplantation before finding the heart, obtaining it and delivering it to the operating room.
“It takes a true team effort,” said Stevens, who first met Fleming at Northwell’s Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. “When we realized Yvonne was a candidate, I told her, ‘you and I need to talk,’ and told her about the life-saving strategies at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital. Yvonne is a champ. She worked with all of us with a smile on her face everyday.”
Lima said that the team was very lucky to have a perfect match for Fleming so early in the process.
“We had two teams working in parallel. The donor team which provides the final confirmation that the heart is suitable. And on the recipient side, there are some issues we deal with related to prior heart surgeries. But once [the transplant is confirmed] we have a tight time line. We want to have the heart out of the body and into the new body in under four hours. The coordination has to be literally down to the second.”
And the doctor tasked with making sure the heart was not only viable, but that it was delivered within that four-hour window, was Hussain.
“The key words they want to hear is “the heart’s good.” So when I said those words, the goal was to make the time as short as possible,” said Hussain. “I got there and the whole team was waiting for me. Now it’s a matter of life—and time for the heart’s journey back home.”
The heart’s journey to Yvonne Fleming is not only a first on the Island, but it is truly a life-changing moment for the recipient. Aside from a new lease on life, Fleming now has a new mission: to recruit donors and extol the virtues of the heart hospital.
“You don’t have a hospital, you have a family of people who love what they do,” Fleming said to Sandra Bass, who was seated in the front row. “I’m going to sign up as many people as I can to be donors. I want to talk to former recipients, I want to talk to young people and be a part of life. Tomorrow is not promised, so if you can help somebody, then help somebody. I’m going to make this hospital very proud. Thank you from the bottom of my heart—no, not the bottom—thank you from the top of my heart, thank you from my whole heart.”