Piedmont Heart Institute launches transplant program

Over the past decade, nearly 300 donor hearts from Georgia have gone to transplant recipients in other states -- a fact Piedmont Heart Institute physicians hope to help change with the creation of a heart transplant program.

“You want to keep those hearts here in Georgia,” said Dr. Nirav Raval, a cardiovascular specialist helping to spearhead the effort.

Hearts leaving the state could stem in part from some physicians not recognizing their patients may need transplants, Raval said.

From 2000 to 2010, 783 hearts were donated in Georgia, while 493 heart transplants were done here, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing , a nonprofit that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under a federal contract.

One of the biggest access-to-care issues is education about how advanced heart therapies are today, said Dr. David Dean, a transplant surgeon. “They’re available and should be available sooner than later.”

More than 3,180 people in the U.S. are currently waiting for heart transplants, including 37 in Georgia, according to UNOS. Since 1988, Georgia hospitals have performed 1,170-plus heart transplants, including 57 last year, data show.

Headquartered at Piedmont Hospital in Buckhead, the institute has 100-plus physicians and 32 offices throughout the state . The institute needs final approval from UNOS before it can put patients on a waiting list or receive organs.

Piedmont will join the ranks of Georgia’s other heart transplant centers: Emory Healthcare, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Emory Healthcare has done more than 580 adult transplants since 1988, according to UNOS. Its surgeons have also done more than 200 of the procedures for children at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, spokesman Lance Skelly said.

Demand for heart transplants depends on patients’ needs vs. availability of matching hearts, Skelly said. “If there’s an organ and there’s not somebody waiting for it, then they go out of state next.”

It’s hard to gauge a need for more transplant programs in a particular community, but it has the potential to help patients, said James Wynn, immediate past president of UNOS.

Where competing programs exist, transplant teams may be more likely to critically assess and accept organs -- increasing access for patients, said Wynn, who also heads the transplant program at Georgia Health Sciences University, formerly the Medical College of Georgia.

A team may already be doing a transplant, he said. “If you have another team in the state, then that heart might be used within Georgia instead of being used somewhere else.”

Piedmont may be willing to do a transplant for an older patient when another hospital might consider it too risky, Piedmont Healthcare spokesman Jim Taylor said. And while being able to keep a procedure in-house is a financial plus for the hospital, it also provides patients another option close to home, he said.

Raval said Piedmont currently sends about 25 heart patients each year to transplant centers in other states, as well as local hospitals.

Transplant patients already have a host of financial and psychological stresses to deal with, so being able to stay with the doctors they know and trust is a huge comfort factor, said Pat Rotchford, managing director of the Georgia Transplant Foundation.

For heart transplant recipient Dick Ford, the doctors and nurses at Piedmont have become like family. Ford had his transplant at St. Joseph’s three years ago, but the 64-year-old depends on Raval and his staff if he has questions or worries.

“You develop a bond with them,” he said. “You develop such a trust.”