‘I can’t thank these people enough’: Rochester becoming upstate epicenter for heart transplants

Rochester an upstate epicenter for heart transplants

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Denise Champagne was born with a rare heart disease.

“We had a nurse that lived next door and she would tell my mother, ‘There’s something wrong with that baby,'” she said.

In Champagne’s disease, Ebstein anomaly, “The valve is kind of in the wrong place and it’s defective, so the heart never beats correctly, and you don’t get enough oxygen,” she said.

Champagne has had four valve replacements in her life. In 2022, she was referred to UR Medicine. Rochester is now the Upstate New York epicenter for heart transplants: In 2022, surgeons at Strong Memorial Hospital did 22 heart transplants. In 2023, that number jumped to 40.

“I knew there were problems, so I thought I was facing another valve replacement — and there were other issues by then and the heart has expanded and I had right heart failure,” Champagne said.

Without a full heart transplant? “The heart is getting worse and eventually it’s going to stop, so yeah … you’re going to die,” she said.

Champagne spent about five months on the transplant list. On March 9, 2023, the phone rang.

“It’s weird because it’s like the call you’re hoping for and you’re not even sure you’re ever going to get — and then when you do, you’re not prepared for it,” she said.

Dr. Kate Wood gets to make many of those calls. She’s a cardiac transplant surgeon at Strong Memorial Hospital who specializes in adults who were born with heart disease.

“They’re actually the fastest growing patient-population in the world of cardiology right now, because all of these babies who historically wouldn’t have lived are now living into adulthood,” Wood said.

It’s part of the reason why Strong has seen such growth in its heart transplant program over the last year. New technology also keeps hearts viable longer, which means Strong can get them from donors who are farther away.

The transplant team is also working closer with cardiologists, pharmacists and nutritionists wo help make sure a transplant remains successful after the surgeons do their work.

“With the kind of growth of our team and the expertise on our team, we’re able to do more complex patients than we were doing historically, so that’s been a great value add for our region at large,” Wood said.

The 40 heart transplants that Strong performed in 2023 were the most ever.

“We have the privilege of working with a lot of different colleagues across the country, and they’re outstanding and they have outstanding teams — none of them are as good as they are here,” Wood said.

That’s a good thing for patients like Denise.

“Oh my god, yeah — I can’t thank these people enough,” she said.

The only way she can try, she said, is by encouraging people to consider becoming organ donors, so the 35 or so people on the list right now have the same shot at a new life that she does.

“A gift that is just probably the best gift you can ever give,” Champagne said.