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Previously Transplanted Heart
Four months after his groundbreaking heart transplant surgery at Cedars-Sinai, Michael Iwuchukwu says he is feeling "strong and healthy."

In a March 13, 2007 operation at the medical center, the 45-year-old man became possibly the first patient ever to receive a heart that had been transplanted before. If such a procedure has been performed, there appears to be no record in the medical literature, according to the cardiothoracic surgeons and cardiologists involved in Iwuchukwu's case.

The reuse of any solid organ for transplantation is extremely rare and has been successfully accomplished only in the past few years. Members of Cedars-Sinai's heart transplant program said it is unusual to accept a previously transplanted heart, for several reasons, and the decision was made only after carefully considering all the information about the donor and recipient.

In this case, the first recipient experienced non-heart-related complications during the transplant operation. Declared brain dead, the recipient became a potential donor and, with the family's consent, the heart was offered for donation six days after the operation.

Iwuchukwu's care and the decision to accept the organ were directed by cardiothoracic surgeon Sinan A. Simsir, M.D., surgical director of the Heart Transplant Program; cardiologist Lawrence S.C. Czer, M.D., medical director of the program; and transplant cardiologist Ernst R. Schwarz, M.D., Ph.D. In addition, cardiothoracic surgeon Gregory P. Fontana, M.D., traveled to the site of the initial transplant to evaluate and procure the organ.

(l-r) Lawrence Czer, M.D., and Gregory Fontana, M.D.

"Mike currently returns to Cedars-Sinai every other week for testing; he is doing very well and there are no signs of rejection or any other complication," said Czer.

Nigerian-born Iwuchukwu, who lives in Porter Ranch, had a very rare heart condition called noncompaction syndrome, which gives the heart a sponge-like appearance. The disorder eventually led to the malfunction of his heart and the need for a transplant. Iwuchukwu is a very large man, and because a donor heart needs to be somewhat similar in size to the recipient's heart, Iwuchukwu's physicians were concerned that a suitable heart would not become available in time to save his life.

For patients like Iwuchukwu, and in view of the current shortage of available donor organs, the reuse of healthy, viable organs is a possibility that is just now being realized, according to the doctors. Iwuchukwu said he was not concerned when he learned that his new heart had been transplanted before.

His name was first placed on the transplant waiting list in 2002. He went off the list for several years as his symptoms were managed through medication and the implantation of an internal cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) to synchronize his heartbeat. But in February 2006, his condition deteriorated and his name was put on the list again. More than a year later, at about 4 p.m. on March 13, a transplant coordinator called to say the hospital had a heart for him.

Iwuchukwu, a civil engineer, said "miracle" is the only word that comes close to describing how it feels to receive a much-needed organ. "It's like a gift. It's a second chance. It's like you're a new person again," he said.