Seton celebrates 30 years of heart transplants

First Heart Transplant in Central Texas
First Heart Transplant in Central Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thirty years ago Friday, surgeons at the Seton Medical Center in Austin performed the first heart transplant in Central Texas. There have been 388 more since. Friday, those patients, their families and the Seton Healthcare Family celebrated that anniversary, and how far they’ve come.

“I was very nervous, very scared,” 71-year-old Walter Stevens remembers when his bypass was failing. Doctors gave him only a year to live without a transplant. He was nervous until he met others who had gone through it. “They’d come around and see me, really give me some encouragement. They were going out playing golf and different things. I had always thought I’ll be in a wheelchair the rest of my life if I have this transplant. I wasn’t too afraid after that.”

Walter Stevens is one of Central Texas' longest living heart transplant recipients. (KXAN Photo)
Walter Stevens is one of Central Texas’ longest living heart transplant recipients. (KXAN Photo)

That was 25 years ago, a long run with a transplanted heart, a run Walter didn’t think he’d see. He remembers, “Doctors told me I had an 80 percent chance to live two years, a 50 percent chance to live five [years], but on 10 years they couldn’t provide a percentage because they hadn’t done that many and that was kind of daunting.” After his procedure Walter went on to a full life, exercising regularly and working until 2011.

Early transplants didn’t take for very long, the body rejected the heart. Until 1981, when the immunosuppression drug cyclosporin came along. According to Dr. Ernest Haeusslein, cardiologist at the Seton Special Care & Transplant Center, the surgical techniques haven’t changed much over the years, but the improvement in drugs to fight rejection has. “Outcomes in survival were dramatically improved. What you saw after 1981 was an explosion in the number of transplant programs in the country,” Haeusslein said. “There were only a handful of them from 1968 to 1981, because the technology wasn’t really there and the outcomes weren’t very good.”

The heart Walter received came from a 15-year-old girl, a girl the same age as his daughter Jana. It’s given him grateful perspective, “I kind of look at my daughter’s stages of life and I see what my donor might have been doing had she survived, you know?”

Taking a closer look at the progress of heart transplants, about 2,300 are performed a year in the United States, Seton performed 20 last year. The one year survival rate is now 90 percent. Half of recipients survive ten years, 20 percent survive for 20 years. Ninety percent of recipients go on to live full, normal lives. The man who survived the longest, John McAfferty of England, passed away this past Tuesday at the age of 73. He had his heart a record 33 years.

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