transplant reunion party celebrates lifesaving milestone
Annual event brings survivors together for a
By MITZI BAKER
It was nearly 20 years ago that a Stanford team performed the
world's first successful implantation of a left ventricular assist
device, or LVAD, into the chest of a gravely ill patient to keep
him alive long enough to receive a heart transplant. "When I woke
up after surgery, it was immediate: no more pain. It was amazing,"
the patient, Robert St. Laurent, recalled.
The device he received has since become a lifesaver for thousands
worldwide. St. Laurent, who was given only 24 hours to live before
the surgery, depended on his LVAD for just over eight days in 1984
until a donor heart became available. He has traveled from Florida
to join others who received new hearts at Stanford and to reunite
with the team that saved his life.
Robert St. Laurent talks with his wife Cynthia
and son Randy (above) during the eight-day period when he had his
LVAD. Twenty years later, he is one of the longest-surviving heart
transplant recipients in the world. The Florida resident is in town
for a reunion party. Photos: Courtesy of
Today's annual heart, heart-lung and lung transplant reunion party
marks this milestone while celebrating other transplantations that
have taken place at Stanford before and since. With more than 1,000
heart transplantations under their belts, and more than 100 each of
lung and heart-lung transplantations, Stanford Hospital &
Clinic's cardiothoracic surgery team is creating an ever-growing
group of survivors with a new lease on life.
In addition to St. Laurent, many of the hundreds of other Stanford
transplant recipients will attend the reunion party. Confirmed
guests include former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Dean Moore.
The evening also will include entertainment highlighting
improvisational music talents of former patients, said Mary Burge,
a clinical social worker who specializes in the psychological
conflicts that transplant recipients face. A longtime Stanford
Hospital employee, Burge worked with St. Laurent when he was a
patient here two decades ago. Although he does not play a musical
instrument, St. Laurent said he's "looking forward to a good laugh
at the jam session."
"Robert St. Laurent is an incredible living example of
translational research," said Robert Robbins, MD, associate
professor of cardiothoracic surgery and director of the heart-lung
transplant program at Stanford Hospital & Clinics. "More than
10 years of research went into the development of the device before
it was used in St. Laurent, who benefited from both our
transplantation program and the LVAD that allowed him to live long
enough to receive a new heart."
St. Laurent had been on the waiting list for a heart but probably
wouldn't have survived long enough to get one, said Peer Portner,
MD, consulting professor of cardiothoracic surgery, who developed
the device used in St. Laurent and has stayed in contact with him
over the years.
Portner's LVAD had been approved by the Food and Drug
Administration two months before St. Laurent arrived here in 1984.
"He just happened to be in the right place at the right time,"
Portner said. "I think a lot of the success of the device has to do
with Phil Oyer's great judgment in picking an extremely good
candidate." Philip Oyer, MD, the Roy B. Cohn-Theodore A. Falasco
Professor of Cardiothoracic Surgery, implanted the device in St.
Today, LVADs such as the one illustrated in this
cutaway drawing ease the load on a diseased heart, providing a
bridge to eventual transplant. Photo:
Courtesy of World Heart Inc. & Novacor
Since the LVAD previously had been untested in
humans, the only information St. Laurent had to allay his
apprehension was a report he received from Burge that the three
sheep implanted with the device were going about their business,
calmly lying down and chewing their cud, seemingly unconcerned.
Burge recalled that Cynthia St. Laurent, Robert's wife, laughed so
hard at this unconventional "patient update" that she spewed coffee
all over her pink angora sweater.
A little over a week after surgeons implanted the LVAD, he received
the heart of an 18-year-old college student who was left brain dead
after a car accident -- a poignant twist for St. Laurent who had a
son the same age. "All I know is that he must have been a
good-living boy because the heart works really well even after all
this time," he said.
Not only was St. Laurent the first to benefit from an LVAD to buy
time until transplantation, but after 20 years he is among the
longest-living transplant survivors. The country's second-longest
surviving heart transplant patient is Tony Heusman, who celebrated
the 25th anniversary of his heart transplant from Stanford last
Ever since Norman Shumway, MD, the Frances and Charles Field
Professor of Cardiovascular Surgery emeritus, and his colleagues
performed the first adult heart transplant in the United States in
1968, and Bruce Reitz, MD, the Norman E. Shumway Professor in
Cardiovascular Surgery, successfully transplanted a heart and lung
for the first time in the world with his team in 1981, Stanford has
pioneered advances in heart and lung transplantations. About 50
patients undergo heart transplantation each year at Stanford -- the
most of any hospital in Northern California -- with an additional
12 to 20 patients receiving some type of lung transplant.
• LVADs are surgically implanted mechanical circulatory
support devices that help an ailing heart pump blood. They move
blood from the left ventricle and return it to the aorta by a
• The patient's heart is still intact, remaining partially
functional and often improving under its lessened workload. An LVAD
can allow the heart to get increasingly stronger; preliminary
studies suggest that heart pumps may sometimes reverse the course
of heart failure.
• The pumps are slightly larger than a human heart and weigh
about 2 pounds. Surgeons implant the device in a pocket they create
below the skin within the abdominal wall muscles.
• During placement, doctors tunnel two conduits through the
diaphragm from the pump, one leading to a hole cored in the apex of
the heart's left ventricle, the other to the ascending aorta. A
tube with about the same diameter as a cigar carries control and
power wires out through the patient's skin to battery packs.
• The batteries, which last for about four hours, and
controller weigh about 4 pounds and can be tucked into a vest
pocket, worn on a belt or carried in a shoulder bag. The recipient
can also run the device by plugging it into a wall socket.
• LVADs emit a distinct ticking sound likened to a grandfather
clock or the clip-clop of horse hooves on cobblestone.