Change of heart: Hospital agrees to put teen on transplant list

Staff photographer Ben Gray contributed to this article.

Faced with a public relations nightmare, officials at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta reversed course Tuesday, putting 15-year-old Anthony Stokes on the waiting list for a heart transplant.

That decision came only days after officials at Children’s Egleston hospital wrote a letter saying he would not be listed as a candidate because he had a “history of non-compliance.”

Advocates for the family, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, fought that decision publicly. They said hospital officials had told them Anthony, a Lithonia 10th-grader, was disqualified by his age, race and a history that includes at least one brush with the law. Hospital officials, citing privacy laws, declined to explain their reasoning, but in a press release Tuesday alluded to “misinformation circulating” in the case.

The family’s charges, reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, caught the attention of news media throughout the nation.

But Tuesday was a new story. “His heart is critical, so he’ll be put on the list,” Anthony’s mother, Melencia Hamilton, said at a Tuesday evening news conference following the hospital’s reversal. “So when a heart becomes available, he will get it. He will get it.”

Anthony, who has been in the hospital for about a month, was clearly buoyed by the news.

“I feel good. I feel like I got a second chance to achieve my dreams,” he told the AJC. “I want to be an entrepreneur. I want to own my own business. I love to draw.”

The family spokesman, Mark Bell, said hospital officials did not offer a reason for the change of course.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, hospital officials offered no insight, citing privacy laws. They did, however, allude to “misinformation circulating” about Anthony’s case — a possible attempt to refute the family’s claim that they had stereotyped Anthony as a trouble-maker.

“As we stated previously, a heart transplant evaluation is an ongoing process based on the patient and his or her family’s ability to meet specific transplant criteria,” the release stated.

“Our physician experts are continuing to work with this family to establish a care plan and determine the best next steps for the patient,” the statement continued. “At Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, patient care is always our top priority.”

Anthony suffers from dilated cardiomyopathy, in which the heart’s main pumping chamber, the left ventricle, fails to pump enough blood. The condition is generally treated with medications or devices such as pacemakers before a transplant is considered.

Hamilton told the AJC on Monday that without a new heart, her son was would likely die within six to nine months.

Dr. David Dean, a heart transplant surgeon at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, believes Anthony now has a good chance of getting a heart.

“Very few people die waiting for a heart transplant,” Dean said, adding that if Anthony’s condition deteriorates in the meantime, doctors may be able to give him drugs and even a heart pump.

“If you do well in the first year, you’ll probably do well in the next five,” Dean said, describing the typical prognosis for those who receive new hearts. “And if you do well in the first five years, you’ll probably do better after.”

According to United Network for Organ Sharing, Children’s Healthcare is the only center for pediatric heart transplants in Georgia.

Joel Newman, a spokesman for UNOS, said that once a patient is placed on the list, the median wait time is 50 days, if the patient’s condition is considered urgent. The median time for less severe cases is 309 days.

Newman said once a person is accepted and listed, all his data is plugged into a national network that looks for a donor who is a good match. Among the factors considered in matching, he said, are blood type, body size, age (pediatric or adult), location and urgency.

Anthony said he did not attend his family’s meeting Tuesday with hospital officials. He said his mother came in his room afterward and told him he was on the list.

She was crying.