Kathy Anderson had just given life to two girls — but she was dying.
Anderson, of Brandenburg, Ky., was 20 when she delivered twin girls on March 17, 1987, but a deteriorating heart muscle had reduced the organ’s function to about 2 percent.
“She was in the process of dying,” said Dr. Laman A. Gray Jr., a former heart surgeon who today is the executive and medical director of the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute in Louisville.
Gray helped establish the heart transplant program in Louisville in the mid-1980s. Jewish Hospital was the state’s first institution to be designated as a federally approved heart, liver, lung and kidney transplant center.
On April 16, Anderson will celebrate the 30th anniversary of her heart transplant — together with her daughters, their husbands and her five grandchildren.
Anderson, now 50, recently told Insider that her pregnancy had worsened her cardiomyopathy, a weak and deteriorating heart muscle. The heart was not pumping enough blood, and she had trouble breathing.
It got to the point where she could not swallow and became disoriented.
“It was horrible,” Anderson recalled. “(It’s) the weakest you can be without being dead.”
Gray implanted in her a ventricular assist device, or VAD, which was fairly new back then.
“We put this device in to save her life,” Gray said.
The VAD stabilized Anderson and allowed her body — though not her heart — to recover.
Without the device, the surgeon said, Anderson would have died within 24 hours.
Anderson was put on a transplant list. Because of her critical condition, medical professionals found a heart for her 24 hours later, unusually fast because of the nationwide shortage of organs.
An average of 22 people die every day because of the lack of available organs for transplants, according to the American Transplant Foundation. The waiting list for organs includes about 118,000 people. Nearly 100,000 need a kidney, and nearly 4,000 need a heart, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
More than 400 people need a heart transplant in OPTN Region 11, which covers five states including Kentucky.
Gray said about 3,000 heart transplants are done every year — though about 30,000 are needed.
Procuring hearts is especially difficult, because donors have to be relatively young and must have died from conditions unrelated to the heart.
“There’s a tremendous need for more donors,” Gray said.
Anderson said she was lucky: She received the heart from a 24-year-old man from Florida.
Gray said timing plays a critical role during organ procurement and replacement surgeries, in part because the heart, once removed from the donor, has to be implanted within about four hours — about the length of a typical heart transplant surgery.
In Anderson’s case, a surgical team had to remove the heart from the donor in Florida, while the team at Jewish Hospital in Louisville began preparations for the implantation surgery. While the heart was driven from the Florida hospital to the airport, flown to Louisville and driven to the local hospital, about three hours of the four-hour window had elapsed. And implanting a new heart takes about 45 minutes, Gray said. While the donor heart was en route, the medical team at Jewish placed Anderson under anesthesia, rolled her into the operating room and cracked open her chest to begin removing her failing heart.
The surgery went well, but Anderson said that when she woke up, she was sore, scared and in shock, seeing and feeling herself hooked up to lots of machines, including a ventilator. But she recovered quickly and went home two weeks after the surgery.
Initially, she had to take about 30 pills daily and she worried about her weakened immune system and how much her life would change. Now, however, she takes only three medications and she does anything she wants, including weight lifting, spin class, even ziplining.
“There’s really no limitations,” she said.
Gray said that before such surgeries became available, people with Anderson’s condition had few options because medical treatment at the time was not very effective. The transplant surgeries brought people from the brink of death to a relatively normal life within a matter of weeks. Seeing that process, Gray said, was and remains amazing and gratifying.
“It’s changed people’s lives,” Gray said. “That’s one of the greatest things.”
Anderson said she is grateful to all the medical professionals and the donor and his family, who made the last 30 years possible for her. Thanks to them, she said, she got to see her daughters grow up, get married and have children of their own.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” she said.
Anderson said she knows first-hand that it’s shocking, at first, to be asked if the organs of a just-deceased loved one can be used for transplant surgeries. When her brother Kevin died, the family decided to donate his organs, in part because of Anderson’s history. His liver was transplanted and helped a very sick woman, Anderson said.
Gray performed more than 10,000 heart surgeries during his career, including about 100 heart transplants. At age 76, he no longer performs any procedures, but he still works full-time at the Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, a research facility on Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
One of its research areas: Stem cell-based therapies to regenerate the heart after a heart attack. A successful therapy, which Gray said is still decades away, would significantly reduce the need for transplants.