Yvonne Fleming, the first patient to undergo a heart transplant at a Long Island hospital, was introduced to the public Thursday the day she was being discharged, four months after a damaging heart attack and nearly four weeks after the lifesaving surgery.
As Fleming, 63, told her medical story at a morning news conference, tears flowed down the cheeks of Dr. Gerin Stevens, medical director of cardiac transplantation at Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital on Northwell Health’s Manhasset campus. The transplant was performed there Feb. 19. Stevens said she was moved by Fleming’s words.
“She is a champ . . she has a smile on her face every day,” Stevens said.
The patient, who was going home to Brooklyn, praised her doctors and the grace of God for a life-extending second chance.
“I am getting back to life one day at a time,” Fleming said.
Her surgeon, Dr. Brian Lima, director of heart transplantation, called the confluence of events — having a patient in need, finding a heart that matched and a having a highly experienced team already prepared — “magical.”
“Every heart transplant is magical. But this one was so unique. Everything just clicked,” Lima said.
Lima performed Fleming’s surgery, after Dr. Syed Hussain, Northwell’s lead heart procurement surgeon, removed the heart from an unidentified donor.
A trio of drugs is now part of Fleming’s daily regimen to prevent organ rejection. After adapting a while to her new heart, she will undergo cardiac biopsy, a technique in which a small snippet of heart tissue is removed.
That procedure involves inserting a catheter into an artery in her neck and guiding it to the heart while viewing each step on a screen. A pathologist will study the tissue in the lab to determine how well Fleming is accepting the new organ. Transplanted hearts generally remain viable for about 12 years, Lima said.
Fleming’s transplant was the first of three performed in a month at the Bass Heart Hospital, said Dr. Alan Hartman, senior vice president and executive director of cardiothoracic services at Northwell Health. The institution’s transplant program was approved by the State Department of Health last year.
Four other hospitals in the region have heart transplant programs. The surgical ability to transplant hearts dates back more than 50 years.
Fleming expressed her regrets Thursday that someone had to die so that she could live. But she waxed poetic about the joy of feeling a healthy, synchronous heartbeat in her chest and expressed elation with being able to breathe freely again. She shared her surgeon’s views about a magical moment — a favorable alignment of the stars.
“Everything lined up on the 19th,” Fleming said about her transplant date. “Science, the universe, everything lined up on the 19th.”
A heart attack in November — one of two she has experienced — irreparably damaged 70 percent of her native heart, stealing its ability to pump efficiently and causing fluid to develop in her lungs, key hallmarks of congestive heart failure.
“When they said, ‘We have a heart for you,’ all I could say was, wow. I kept saying to myself this isn’t real,” Fleming said.
Some patients wait years for a new heart and many increasingly are sustained by an implanted left ventricular assist device — LVAD — that assumes the immense pumping duties of a human heart. LVADs are used as a “bridge to transplant” until a human heart can be found.
Many patients, however, die waiting for a new organ. On average, 18 people die daily nationwide awaiting transplants for organs of all kinds, a death rate driven by a national shortage of donor organs, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
In October, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced efforts aimed at boosting organ donations statewide.
“I am so blessed,” Fleming said of her luck in obtaining a new heart. She vowed to become an active and vocal advocate for organ donation and plans to become a donor herself.