Intermountain’s heart transplant team celebrates 600th transplant

Jul 19, 2023, 8:00 AM

Tyler Larsen, the 605th Intermountain heart transplant recipient, shares his experience at a celebr...

Tyler Larsen, the 605th Intermountain heart transplant recipient, shares his experience at a celebration of the milestone of 600 lifesaving transplants by the Intermountain heart transplant team at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Tuesday. Tyler Larsen, the 605th Intermountain heart transplant recipient, shares his experience at a celebration of the milestone of 600 lifesaving transplants by the Intermountain heart transplant team at the Intermountain Medical Center in Murray on Tuesday. (Megan Nielsen/ Deseret News)

(Megan Nielsen/ Deseret News)

MURRAY — Jessica Leon received her “miracle” on April 27, and she expressed gratitude Tuesday for her “hero donor” who allowed her to continue raising her two daughters.

Leon said she can’t imagine the pain the heart donor’s family went through, but she said with their “merciful decision, they prevented my daughters (from going) through the same type of loss.”

She began having significant heart problems during the birth of her second daughter, and she decided not to have any more children so she could be there for her daughters. She said at first she tried to ignore her heart problem, adjusting her actions so the symptoms were less noticeable. As she learned more about transplantation and got so sick that it hurt to eat, she decided to go ahead with a transplant. She was hospitalized for 59 days before a heart was available to her.

The 35-year-old woman is one of 600 people who have had their lives saved by a heart transplant at Intermountain Health over the last 38 years. The organization held a celebration Tuesday to honor the donors and care workers who helped make each of those donations possible; it claims to be one of the most successful cardiac transplant programs in the U.S. and is a model for others.

Dr. William Caine and Dr. John Doty performed the 600th adult heart transplant earlier this year, and since that point, Intermountain Health doctors have done eight more heart transplants.

“It takes a lot of thoughtful, meticulous, long-term decisions by a lot of caring providers, clinicians, and multi-disciplinary team members to get to this point in a program. … Our team truly cares about the individuals they partner with on this journey,” said Dr. Bruce Reid, Intermountain’s surgical director for the heart transplant and artificial heart programs.

He talked about the history of transplants in the state and said in one of the first heart transplants in Utah, performed at LDS Hospital in the 1980s, the recipient learned that the young man donating the heart was his grandson, who had been in an accident in Cache County.

“He lived for 30 more years with his grandson’s heart,” Reid said Tuesday.

The man made the hard decision to use his grandson’s heart for the rest of his life while he was preparing for the surgery.

Reid said the heart transplant program at Intermountain did not perform many transplants at that time, but it has grown significantly. In 2022, Intermountain performed 29 heart transplants, breaking the record for every other year, and this year they have performed 20 heart transplants before the end of June.

Reid said heart transplants are “just a drop in the bucket” in caring for patients with heart failure, which is more common than any one type of cancer. He quoted another heart doctor, who said heart transplants aren’t done to help the masses but to help individuals.

Tyler Larsen, a father of five children, is another patient who was saved by a transplant. He said the toughest thing for him is that another family needed to lose someone for him to survive. He had a genetic condition and multiple other members of his family, including his mom, sister and uncle, have also needed heart transplants.

For Larsen, it is hard to accept that someone else had to die for him to live, he said he would rather die himself. But he is “more than grateful” to be able to be there for his children. Larsen received a heart transplant on June 3, and he said the donation has already blessed many lives and “will not be wasted.”

He didn’t slow down; he was on his feet three days after the surgery and was out of the hospital 10 days after.

Mark Dixon, with Donor Connect, a program that helps connect donors and recipients, congratulated Intermountain Health on the milestone and encouraged more people to be organ donors. He said there are nearly 110,000 people who currently need an organ transplant.

“You can make a difference and you can leave behind a legacy,” he said, as he told attendees to speak with their families about organ donation.

Dixon introduced Marley Bramble and Jady Tippetts, whose 22-year-old daughter Jaydra Tippetts died on Feb. 17.

Jady Tippetts said his daughter was not able to donate her heart because of abuse she had endured, but she was able to donate organs and save the lives of four people. He said there was no hesitation that if his daughter didn’t pull through when she was hospitalized, she would donate organs.

“I’m honored that Jaydra gave her life for these four people, and I take from that that we should always give the gift of anything to anybody in our daily lives,” he said.

Daynene Snyder’s 20-year-old son Jayden became an organ donor after he passed away in a car accident on July 17, 2020. She said Jayden being a donor gave their family a positive outlet for grief. Although he is gone, his heart is still beating and his eyes are still looking at the world.

“We are proud of our son for making this decision so selflessly and without a second thought,” she said.


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Intermountain’s heart transplant team celebrates 600th transplant