Organ Donation

News | one month ago

The Beat Goes On: How a Song Sparks Support for Organ Donations

Bonnie Raitt recently won “Song of the Year” at the Grammy Awards with a piece that tells a story of how life can come from an unimaginable loss. It’s an experience many understand firsthand, and a mission the team at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute takes to heart.

In her recent acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards, singer and songwriter Bonnie Raitt explained the meaning behind the hit that earned her the “Song of the Year” win. Raitt shared that the self-penned song “Just Like That” was inspired by a news segment she saw where a woman donated her son’s organs after he passed away – and she was preparing to meet the man who received her son’s heart.

In her song, Raitt sings:

“I lay my head upon his chest. And I was with my boy again.”

The song captures a moment that is equal parts gut-wrenching and heartwarming. It conveys the incredible compassion it takes to choose organ donation and the life that can come from an unimaginable loss. It’s an experience many have had to grapple with firsthand, and a mission the team at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute takes to heart.

A Tremendous Gift

Heart transplant patients are those who are suffering from advanced heart failure, either from a severe, acute illness or long-term heart disease. They have reached the point where medical therapy and support devices can no longer keep their heart working effectively and they have a high risk of dying without a heart transplant.  

But heart transplant patients are also individuals with families and dreams, and their desire for a second chance at life is dependent upon their ranking on the heart transplant list.

Across the U.S., more than 3,300 people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant – 95 of which are waiting in North Carolina – according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Although Raitt didn’t say which news story inspired her to write the song, it’s not a unique headline. It’s an experience many have had to face. 

For Jody Pelt of Michigan, it was when her 19-year-old son, Bill Scruggs, died after being shot in 2019. The day he got his license, Jody says Bill was so proud of himself that he elected to be an organ donor and saw that little mark on his card denoting his choice.

Jody’s son’s heart went to Bobby Davis, a patient at Atrium Health Carolinas Medical Center (CMC) who spent weeks in the ICU with congestive heart failure. His cardiologist, Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute's Dr. Joseph Mishkin, worked to find the right match. Soon a heart was found, and the surgery was a success.

After receiving his transplant, Bobby began writing letters to the family who gave him a tremendous gift: his new heart. Bobby later sent Jody a recording of her son’s heartbeat that was captured during a check-up. When she met Bobby in person in 2021 and heard her son’s heartbeat through a stethoscope, Jody exclaimed tearfully, “I made that.”

As a tribute to Bill’s life, the Davis family arranged to install a bell along with Bill’s photo on the heart transplant floor at CMC. “Bill’s Bell” is rung after every successful heart transplant.

More Than 700 Second Chances

In June 2022, Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute completed the 700th heart transplant, a milestone that signifies the expertise and dedication of the multidisciplinary team of cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, specialized nurses, pharmacists and other health care professionals who have helped patients like Bobby get a second chance at life. 

“Our mission is to help people live longer and allow them to feel better and have an enjoyable, functional life with their family and friends,” says Dr. Sanjeev Gulati, chief of adult cardiology and advanced heart failure and transplant physician at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. 

The first heart transplant in Charlotte took place in 1986, by cardiac surgeon and founder of the Sanger Clinic, Dr. Francis Robicsek in conjunction with cardiologist Dr. Alan Thomley. Their hope was to give the greater Charlotte community access to this life-saving procedure. 

Nearly four decades later, Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute 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.

“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,” says Mishkin.

Lifesaving Technology

Part of the success of the transplant program at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is credited to innovative technology, the latest being a portable technology called TransMedics Organ Care System (OCS), which expands the amount of time a donated heart can be suitable for transplant, helping make more donated hearts available for those who need them.

“Once a heart is removed from a deceased donor due to cardiac death, the portable system revives the heart and keeps it beating, infusing it with blood from the donor that is supplemented with nutrients and oxygen,” explains Dr. Eric Skipper, a cardiothoracic heart transplant surgeon at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “The system also allows us to carefully assess the heart’s functional quality and viability for transplant before we reach the operating room to perform the transplant.”

According to Skipper, OCS eliminates the time restraints that can require turning down a donated heart. With the use of the new technology, the donor pool has expanded because the heart can be kept viable for up to eight hours and be received from up to 1,000 miles away. It also allows for the acceptance of higher-risk hearts, including those from older donors and donors who are initially put on life support before withdrawing care.

Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute is the only transplant center in the greater Charlotte region currently using this technology and was identified as an ideal location because it is a high-quality and high-volume transplant center. The transplant team utilizes Atrium Health MedCenter Air to transport the team to and from donor locations. 

“We face a nationwide shortage of donated organs,” says Mishkin. “I expect this technology to transform the transplant industry, increasing the national donor supply and helping us transplant more patients in need.”

It’s a hope that parents like Jody can hold onto and a sentiment Raitt shares when she sings:

“It was your son's heart that saved me / And a life you gave us both.”

Learn more about the only heart transplant program in the region at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.