Yvonne Fleming never imagined that she would be at the center of so much attention. That all changed last month, when the deeply spiritual, 63-year-old Brooklyn resident became Long Island’s first heart transplant recipient at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital at North Shore University Hospital.
Led by renowned heart failure and transplant specialists recruited from prominent institutions across the country, the Heart Hospital has performed three transplant surgeries over the past month. It is the first and only full-service destination for heart transplantation serving residents of Long Island, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, with a team of physicians who have experience in more than 500 transplant cases.
Describing herself as lively and in good health, Ms. Fleming was shocked when she awoke from a disturbing dream at about 1:30 a.m. on November 9. She dreamt that she was sent to a white room, where a very nice lady told her that she had to record five phone numbers in order to leave. Panicked, she recited the numbers of her late mother, her late grandmother and a favorite aunt. She fell asleep, greatly relieved, but the feeling didn’t last long. Exactly two hours later, at 3:30 a.m., Ms. Fleming awoke in distress. As she soon learned, she was in the middle of a massive heart attack.
A series of complications and hospital stays indicated that Ms. Fleming’s condition was deteriorating. Doctors told her that the heart attack had caused damage to more than 70 percent of her heart -- in fact, they said it was a miracle that she had survived. In addition, her blood pressure was very low and there was a fluid build-up in her lungs.
On January 17, Ms. Fleming was admitted to the Cardiac Care Unit (CCU) at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, where she met Gerin Stevens, MD, PhD, medical director of North Shore University Hospital’s (NSUH) transplant program, who would become crucial to her survival. After a three-week stay, she was able to return home but on February 9, the doctors urged her to come to NSUH. There, Ms. Fleming learned from Dr. Stevens and Brian Lima, MD, surgical director of the transplant program, that she would be a candidate for the first heart transplant surgery to be performed at the Heart Hospital.
Today, Ms. Fleming met with Dr. Stevens, Dr. Lima and his first assistant Syed Hussain, MD, the hospital’s lead heart procurement surgeon who was responsible for harvesting the donor heart, bringing it to the waiting surgical team on February 19 and working directly with Dr. Lima to transplant the organ.
“When my doctors told me about the possibility of a heart transplant, of course I was a little afraid, but I believe that my angels sent me a message that everything would turn out well,” said Ms. Fleming. “Just before the surgery began, I told the doctors that I was very confident about a good outcome. I prayed on it, and I knew they would do everything to save me. I knew a heart transplant would keep me alive.”
Dr. Lima said an increased emphasis on New York’s statewide organ-donor registration program will go a long way towards improving conditions for the state’s heart failure patients. “Every year, 500 New Yorkers die waiting for a life-saving heart -- an average of one death every 18 hours,” said Dr. Lima, noting that New York State has the nation’s third-lowest overall organ-donor registration rate. One explanation, he said, is that 57 percent of New Yorkers who live in the five boroughs don’t have a driver’s license, according to 2016 state Department of Motor Vehicles figures and planning data. As a result, the state is deprived of the easiest and most convenient way for people to register as organ donors.
Thankfully, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced measures in October 2017 to increase organ donations across the state, directing state agencies to provide the public with new ways to register as organ donors.
Equally important is a change that impacts Long Islanders. “Northwell’s designation as a heart transplant program will be a life-saver for a population of 7.5 million people who were otherwise forced to travel to Manhattan or the Bronx to undergo this complicated surgery and life-long follow-up care,” said Alan Hartman, MD, senior vice president and executive director of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Northwell Health. “Ask any Long Island family whose loved one has received a new heart and you will begin to understand the significant burden placed on both patients and caregivers.”
Northwell Health and its affiliate hospitals collectively treat more heart failure patients than any health system in New York State. Further demonstrating the need for the new program, NSUH’s service area accounts for 46 percent of all heart transplants in the state. In addition to heart, NSUH has had a kidney transplant program in place for more than a decade and has received preliminary approval to begin performing liver transplants within the next year.
To learn more about the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital transplant program, visit www.northwell.edu/transplant or call 516-562-1428.
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About Northwell Health
Northwell Health is New York State’s largest health care provider and private employer, with 23 hospitals, more than 650 outpatient facilities and nearly 15,000 affiliated physicians. We care for over two million people annually in the New York metro area and beyond, thanks to philanthropic support from our communities. Our 66,000 employees – 15,000-plus nurses and 4,000 employed doctors, including members of Northwell Health Physician Partners – are working to change health care for the better. We’re making breakthroughs in medicine at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. We're training the next generation of medical professionals at the visionary Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell and the Hofstra Northwell School of Graduate Nursing and Physician Assistant Studies. For information on our more than 100 medical specialties, visit Northwell.edu