Yvonne Fleming thanked North Shore University Hospital from the bottom of her heart.
Actually, upon correction, she thanked them from the very top of her new heart.
“I am truly grateful. When I look down I couldn’t see my heart beat before,” Fleming said. “After the operation when I saw my heart go boom boom, that feeling was so … beautiful that I can’t describe it to you.”
Fleming, a 63-year-old from Brooklyn, was the recipient of Long Island’s first heart transplant surgery.
Along with her team of doctors, Fleming explained the journey she went on – one that started with an unexpected heart attack in November and led her to her Northwell Health transplant team – during a press conference at the hospital on Thursday.
Fleming’s team of doctors included Dr. Gerin Stevens, medical director of the transplant program, Dr. Brian Lima, surgical director of the transplant program and Dr. Syed Hussain, the hospital’s lead heart procurement surgeon who was responsible for removing and transporting the donor heart.
Fleming first met Stevens in January, when Fleming was admitted to the Cardiac Care Unit at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan.
Fleming was able to go home on Feb. 9 after a three-week stay at Lenox Hill.
A few days after discharge, Fleming went back for an appointment at Stevens’ office and still was not feeling well, Stevens said.
That’s when Fleming went to the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital.
“When I met Dr. Lima and Dr. Stevens, the first day I met them they asked what I wanted, I looked at them both in their eyes and I said I want a heart,” Fleming said.
Not all patients are candidates for heart transplants, Stevens explained.
Patients like Fleming, who aren’t tolerating usual medications well, can be put on LVADs, left ventricular assist devices, Stevens said.
LVADs are often used as a transition before a transplant.
In Fleming’s case, though, she had many favorable characteristics to go straight to transplant, Stevens said. Characteristics that are considered include height, blood type and other factors, Stevens said.
At North Shore, Stevens and Lima told Fleming she was a candidate for the first heart transplant surgery to be performed at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital.
The Manhasset-based hospital was approved in June by New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to open the transplant program.
There are only five heart transplant centers in the state, three in New York City, one in Westchester and one in Rochester, despite New York having one of the highest number of candidates on a waiting list for a heart transplant.
There are 322 residents on the list, according to the Organ Procurement Transplantation Network.
Fleming said she didn’t realize how fast the process would occur.
Once she got to the hospital within a week she was tested, she said.
Fleming said she got a call that Friday saying she was going to the transplant team.
On Sunday around 3:30 p.m., a doctor came in and said, “I don’t think you should eat that,” Fleming said.
“I joked, I said, ‘Why, you took the heart out of the freezer and now it’s ready,'” Fleming said. “He started laughing and he said, ‘No, we have a heart for you.'”
The transplant team receive calls routinely about hearts, but the doctors sift through the tests and lab results of the potential donor to decide if it is the best fit for the patient, Lima said.
Lima said the team was fortunate and found a perfect match early on for Fleming.
During a transplant process there’s two teams: the donor team, and the recipient team. When an organ is deemed a fit for a recipient, a doctor from the donor team travels to the hospital to examine it in person and retrieve it.
In this case, the recipient doctor was Hussain.
Hussain said the process is both humbling and exciting.
There are even more doctors involved, as the donor could be giving other organs to other patients in various hospitals – even different states.
“Somebody is giving the gift of life and we always take that into account when we go to the hospital,” Hussain said. “We treat them with the utmost respect.”
The doctors are also dealing with a tight timeframe, Lima said.
Ideally, the doctors don’t want the heart out of the body for more than four hours if possible, Lima said.
The coordination between the donor team and the recipient team has to be timed “literally down to the second,” Lima said.
For Fleming’s transplant, the process all happened in under three hours, Lima said.
Fleming said she is grateful that she came to North Shore, because “North Shore saved my life.”
“You don’t have a hospital, you have a family of people that love what they do, they respect people they give it there all and then some,” Fleming said. “From the staff that keeps your hospital clean to the surgeons that do your surgery, there’s so much love in here.”
Now that Fleming has her new heart, she’s going to honor it, she said.
Fleming plans on being an advocate for donors of all kind, she said.
Whether it be for hearts, lungs, eyes, “I’m going to sign as many people up as I possibly can,” Fleming said.
“I’m going to round up a whole new group of donors, they don’t even know I’m coming,” Fleming said. “Because you know what, I think like this, everybody needs something, we just don’t know we need it and when it comes to you, you got to accept the blessings.”