UofL's Mark Slaughter, M.D., performed the 500th heart transplant for the UofL and Jewish Hospital transplant team.

The University of Louisville and the Jewish Hospital Trager Transplant Center marked an important milestone on Wednesday – the 500th heart transplant performed at the hospital since the heart transplant program began there nearly 35 years ago.

“As we end American Heart Month, it’s the perfect time to share this wonderful news,” said Mark Slaughter, MD, surgical director of heart transplant for University of Louisville Physicians and Jewish Hospital, and professor and chair, Department of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, UofL School of Medicine.

Dr. Slaughter performed the 500th transplant on Feb. 21, on a 59-year-old man who had a left ventricular assist device implanted to support his heart until the donor heart was available for transplant. An LVAD is a surgically implanted mechanical pump attached to the heart.

The first heart transplant at the hospital, which was also the first heart transplant in Kentucky, took place on Aug. 24, 1984, performed by the University of Louisville’s Laman Gray Jr., MD. The state and region waited in suspense as 40-year-old Alice Brandenburg received a new heart. The surgery, which took seven hours, was groundbreaking at the time. The UofL and Jewish Hospital transplant team is one of the leading providers of organ transplantation in the country.

“Jewish Hospital is a place where miracles happen every day and patients’ lives are changed forever,” said Ronald Waldridge II, MD, president of Jewish Hospital. “Five-hundred hearts is much more than a milestone. It represents the life-changing impact on our patients, their families and the entire region. Together, with UofL, Jewish Hospital’s Trager Transplant Center is investing in research, technology and advance procedures to increase access to transplant services.”

On Wednesday, doctors and heart transplant recipients gathered at the Jewish Hospital Rudd Heart and Lung Center to celebrate the 500th milestone and the many lives that have been saved over the years thanks to heart transplantation. 

“The 500th heart transplant is a reminder of the commitment by Jewish Hospital and the University of Louisville to provide advanced therapies for patients with advanced heart failure,” Slaughter. said. “We’ve come a long way since Dr. Gray broke ground with that first heart transplant more than 30 years ago. Every day, we continue to advance the science of heart transplantation here at UofL and Jewish Hospital. I’m excited about the future of this program, and I’m confident that we’ll mark a lot more milestones over the next 30 years.”

For Dr. Gray, Wednesday’s celebration marked decades of dedication to the heart transplant program.

“After performing the first heart transplant, it means a lot to me to see the 500th and where we are today,” Gray said. 

Gray continues to research new ways to help patients with heart disease at UofL’s Cardiovascular Innovation Institute, a center focused on bio-adaptive heart innovations, including the integration of heart-assist device, biodfeedback sensors and related technologies. In 2001, Gray and the Trager-UofL surgical team implanted the first fully implantable replacement heart, the AbioCor.

Today, patients like Jeffrey McMahan continue to benefit from the heart transplant program. McMahan was the center’s 479th heart transplant, and he attended the celebration on Wednesday along with other recipients.

Before his heart transplant, McMahan, 61, was no stranger to the procedure – it had helped save many of his family members. The Memphis, Indiana, resident had four family members receive heart transplants – two by University of Louisville surgeons at Jewish Hospital. In 2015, McMahan learned he, too, needed one.

“I was serving in the military at Fort Knox when I developed a cough,” said McMahan. “It finally got bad enough that doctors flew me to Jewish Hospital, where I was diagnosed with a cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle is weakened. I learned that I would need a transplant in the next 10 years, but that timeframe quickly changed to 10 months after my condition worsened.”

On Aug. 15, 2015, McMahan was added to the organ donor transplant list. A month later, he received the transplant that forever changed his life.

“I wouldn’t have lived without the transplant,” McMahan said. “It means a lot to be here to celebrate the 500th. I’m forever thankful to the transplant team that helped save my life and gave me more time with family.”

It has been an exciting year for the Jewish Hospital Trager Transplant Center and University of Louisville team. In December 2017, the center – a joint program with the UofL School of Medicine and KentuckyOne Health – broke its all-time record for number of organs transplanted in the center’s 53-year history, with 175 organs transplanted in a year. The center also achieved several other milestones in 2017, including its 5,000th transplanted organ, its 3,000th kidney transplant and its 900th liver transplant. In addition to Kentucky’s first heart transplant, the program is known for performing Kentucky’s first adult pancreas, heart-lung and liver transplants.

But the 500th heart transplant and other milestones wouldn’t have been reached without organ donors, noted David Lewis, director of Transplant Services at the Jewish Hospital Trager Transplant Center.

“We often encourage people to sign up as organ donors to help save lives. The need for organ donors is unfortunately greater than the number of people who donate, so each day, an average of 20 people pass away while waiting for a transplant in the United States,” Lewis said. “Knowing that we have helped save 500 people in need of a new heart is a wonderful feeling, and it would not be possible without the donors and their families.”

Video of the first heart transplant at Jewish Hospital is available online.