By Gary Pettus/The Clarion-Ledger
JACKSON — When a 13-year-old boy recently got a new heart at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the hospital’s prestige as a transplant center also found new life.
At this past week’s news conference, surgeons lined up not only to disclose details of the successful operation on Malcolm Jones of Winona — UMMC’s first pediatric heart transplant patient in eight years.
They were also signaling a new resolve: to expand or revive UMMC’s transplant programs for the heart, kidneys, liver and more.
For at least a couple of years now, the Jackson medical center has tried to boost those programs by luring high-profile transplant surgeons and other medical specialists to Jackson.
They include Dr. Daniel DiBardino and Dr. Jorge Salazar.
DiBardino, a surgeon featured in the 2010 ABC documentary “Boston Med,” joined UMMC’s congenital heart surgery team in July, moving here from the University of Michigan Medical School.
Salazar, hired in April 2010, is a veteran of one of the largest pediatric heart surgery programs in the country: Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Texas.
He is now UMMC’s chief of congenital heart surgery and director of the congenital heart program.
In August, UMMC also enticed Dr. Chris Anderson to Jackson from Washington University in St. Louis.
His assignment: flesh out UMMC’s kidney transplant program and add liver transplants to the hospital’s repertoire.
“These are top guns being brought here,” said Dr. Giorgio Aru, professor of surgery. “It’s all possible because the institution’s leaders understood the need for this in Mississippi. We will be like New York, Boston, California — no difference. We will do everything they do.”
At one time, UMMC did something no one else had dared: In 1964, Dr. James Hardy led a surgical team that performed the world’s first heart transplant, placing the heart of a chimpanzee into the chest of a man.
This was one year after Hardy and his team completed the world’s first transplantation of a human lung.
“The thing that impressed me most about Dr. Hardy was that he did this in Mississippi, back when people probably worried if we had electricity,” Aru said. “He also had to explain publicly the moral need for using a chimpanzee’s heart. It took several years for people to understand that the heart transplant is an acceptable procedure.”
Still, UMMC’s heart and lung transplant programs apparently went on hiatus for about 17 years, after Hardy performed the institution’s second heart transplant in 1969.
The problem may have been organ rejection — a huge drawback for heart and lung procedures until the development of the drug Cyclosporin in the 1980s.
While adult heart transplants have survived since then, other transplant programs have been cut back or completely severed, often because of the loss of surgeons.
In the late ’80s, UMMC was one of two medical centers in North America performing double-lung transplants.
In 1988, then-UMMC transplant surgeon Dr. Seshadri Raju, now a vascular surgeon at River Oaks Hospital, performed a double-lung transplant on South Carolina congressman Floyd Spence, who was then 60. Spence died 13 years later at the age of 73 following surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain.
Dr. Bobby J. Heath had pioneered UMMC’s heart transplant program for children, which claimed Andrew Carroll as its first patient.
“It was on May 12, 1992, in case you want to know,” said Carroll, now 24, of Richland.
“I was 5,” said the University of Mississippi student. “I don’t remember anything about it, and it’s probably best that I don’t.
“Before the transplant, I’ve been told, I couldn’t walk from the living room to the kitchen, which is less than five feet. I had four heart surgeries before the transplant.”
Heath, the surgeon who started it all, died in a diving accident in 2000, and the number of pediatric heart transplants began to fade.
Until Sept. 18, the last one had been performed in 2003, by Aru, although older teenagers have been served in the adult transplant program.
“We had no referrals in that eight-year period,” Aru said. “We also had no team totally dedicated to pediatric heart surgery. Now, with Drs. DiBardino and Salazar, the program has been revamped.”
A team dedicated to one transplant task is necessary to make organ transplant programs work, DiBardino said.
“You can’t have just one surgeon out in the sticks doing this.”
With the arrival of Anderson, Mississippi children will also be able to receive kidney transplants — within an estimated three or four months.
Within six months to a year, Anderson hopes UMMC also may resume liver transplants.
“I believe the last one was back in 1991,” said Anderson, a Lucedale native who graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi and Emory University in Atlanta.
“Expanding the transplant program is a very good move for a number of reasons. But the bottom line is that there is a lot of kidney disease here. And the patients in this state have historically been underserved when it comes to transplants.”
About 50 to 80 people undergo kidney transplants in Mississippi each year, Anderson said.
As the state’s only transplant center, UMMC can’t meet the demand; another 100 or so go elsewhere, he said.
“There is also a lot of liver disease. About 60 patients have to leave the state each year for a liver transplant.”
High costs may discourage some from seeking a transplant anywhere.
Estimates vary by source and by organ.
In an April report prepared by the consulting firm Milliman, all costs linked to a heart transplant, including pre- and postoperative care, come to nearly $1 million.
Of all the transplanted organs, the kidney is the cheapest, at about $263,000.
The pancreas is also relatively inexpensive, at $289,400.
While pancreas transplants are not available in Mississippi for now, UMMC plans to offer that service some day as well, Anderson said.
“It’s all part of a bid to truly be a center of excellence.”
For Carroll, the bid represents a return to an era that marked what may have been the most important day of his life: May 12, 1992.
“Because of the heart transplant, I pretty much have no limitations now,” he said.
“There are side effects from the medicine, but that’s better than the other thing that could have happened without it.”