After more than 35 years since its first life-saving heart transplant, Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute has performed more than 700 heart transplants for patients from around the world. Learn more about how the teams at Sanger gave patients, Reggie Wilder and Denzel Irvin, a second chance at life after two successful transplants.

News, Your Health | one month ago

From Hopeless to Filled with Hope: Over 700 Successful Heart Transplants Offer Patients a New Chance at Life

After more than 35 years since its first life-saving heart transplant, Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute has performed more than 700 heart transplants for patients from around the world. Learn more about how the teams at Sanger gave patients, Reggie Wilder and Denzel Irvin, a second chance at life after two successful transplants.

Photo: (left) Reggie Wilder (right) Denzel Irvin

The team at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute knows what a new heart can mean to patients. It means more time with family, more moments to remember, and most importantly it replenishes the gift of time declining health may have threatened to take away.

Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is proud to announce it has completed the 700th heart transplant. Since its inception more than 35 years ago, Sanger has repeatedly earned multiple national recognition as the region’s top-rated heart and cardiovascular program, and the only hospital in the region to be recognized as high performing in all six common heart conditions and procedures evaluated by U.S. News & World Report.

This milestone signifies the expertise and dedication of Sanger’s multidisciplinary team of cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, specialized nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals who have helped patients like Reggie Wilder and Denzel Irvin get a second chance at life and get back to doing what they love.

Reggie’s story: From Hopeless to Hopeful

Former New York City police officer Reggie Wilder moved to the Charlotte, N.C. area shortly after 9/11 to live closer to family and enjoy the milder climate. But soon after he arrived, he began having heart problems that progressively got worse. Years of high blood pressure, a stressful job, a sedentary lifestyle, and a history of smoking were weakening his heart function and his kidneys to the point of severe heart failure, along with atrial fibrillation and a leaky mitral valve. 

“It got to the point that I could barely stand up. I was always short of breath. My legs and feet were very swollen and doing everyday things like getting in and out of the shower was very rough,” says Reggie. 

“One of my biggest hobbies is cooking, but it got to the point that I stopped because it was hard to keep standing up in the kitchen because I was so weak. That really bothered me.” After driving home from the supermarket, he says he had to sit in his car for 30 minutes to gather the strength to walk 15 feet to his front door. 

Cue the teams at Sanger. From the moment Reggie walked through the doors for the very first time, his team provided the most advanced care possible. Despite strong heart failure medicines, an implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD), and later a mechanical heart pump, his condition continued to deteriorate, keeping him in the hospital for weeks to the point that he needed a heart transplant to survive.  

“There was no doubt in my mind that my heart was not repairable. I felt hopeless that this was the end.” 

But on April 30, 2022, what Reggie calls “his miracle” happened when a suitable heart was available for his transplant. Reggie soon became the proud recipient of the 704th heart transplant recipient at Sanger. 

“I feel completely, totally different,” he reflects Reggie. “I am so very, very grateful. My team at Sanger gave me a second chance.” 

A sudden need for a new heart 

Twenty-six-year-old Denzel Irvin, a Butler High School football coach and former UNC Charlotte football player, was the picture of good health. But this spring, he suffered from an acute illness that rapidly led to heart failure.

After being admitted to Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center, he learned that what he thought was COVID-19, was actually heart failure. With his heart functioning at only 10%, Denzel was placed under the care of the team at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and, remarkably, in less than a month, received a successful heart transplant.

“We had enough evidence up front to know his heart was failing,” said Joseph Mishkin, MD, advanced heart failure transplant cardiologist at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “If Denzel weren’t in such good shape and otherwise healthy, he would have been sicker than he was.“

Utilizing technologies available at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, Denzel’s team of doctors were able to quickly understand his condition and share with his family that he needed a new heart to live.

Denzel became Sanger’s 701st heart transplant patient. After his transplant, he spent just over a week in the hospital recovering and then walked out, hands held high, feeling well, expressing gratitude for another chance at life. “When I got out of the hospital, I was so grateful to breathe fresh air, take a shower and eat my mom’s food.”

Denzel credits his faith for getting him through the tough times. “Anytime I felt pain, anytime I felt discouraged, I would say to myself ‘I’m doing it for my daughter,’ I would go to my daughter’s face.”

“It is very gratifying to see Reggie and Denzel and our other heart transplant patients recover, regain their energy, and can do the everyday things that many of us take for granted,” says Dr. Mishkin. “Although we have performed more than 700 heart transplants at Sanger, each and every patient is special, and it is always a thrill to be able to help them look optimistically to the future and have more time with their family and friends.”  

Grateful for a second chance and great care 

Both Reggie and Denzel say they are grateful for the chance to resume life and enjoy the things they used to do before becoming so ill.  

Reggie says he is looking forward to participating in physical and occupational therapy that will enable him to restore his strength and live a full life without the many limitations he faced for years. He hopes to resume traveling and cooking once again and enjoy spending time with his family and watching his six grandchildren grow up. 

“The doctors and the whole team at Sanger are excellent, and most importantly, they know how to treat people. They show real empathy, listen, and I always felt respected,” says Reggie. “They said, ‘we are going to take good care of you,’ and they did. I am very grateful.” 

Learn more about heart care at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.