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Levine Children's pediatric heart transplant program hits milestone

After more than 100 transplants, the pediatric heart team in Charlotte says they can keep families together for tough battles

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When a child needs a heart transplant, there's a lot to factor in. But the team at Atrium Health Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte says they're equipped to provide the best care possible for kids in the region, and they say they can keep families closer to home for care.

During a panel on Facebook Live on Thursday, four members of the Pediatric Heart Surgery and Cardiology team discussed what they do to help ensure kids who need a heart transplant not only can get one but also are able to recover quickly and have continuing care that lasts until adulthood. Dr. Gonzalo Wallis, one of the experts on the panel, notes the program at Charlotte is not only the only one in the region but nationally-ranked and fully equipped to handle anything. Wallis was especially grateful for a generous donation from former Carolina Panther Greg Olsen and his wife Carol; one of their sons, TJ, was born with congenital heart disease, prompting them to help the program out.

RELATED: Greg Olsen shares video of son TJ sharing transplant news with siblings

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Recently, TJ Olsen was matched with a heart for donation after Greg Olsen reported his son's modified heart was nearing its end. TJ underwent surgery recently at Levine Children's to get his new heart, and was part of an important milestone for the program; earlier in 2021, the program had performed 100 such heart transplants, and TJ was one of three recent surgeries handled in the last week, bringing the total to 110. For Wallis, hitting that milestone is evidence families in need of this care can find it without traveling hundreds of miles away from home.

Dr. Jennifer Bailey, one of the physicians within the program, says she has had plenty of experience working with pediatric heart health issues, and she agrees with Wallis: the team is key to making sure kids get the best care possible.

"Every patient that has a heart transplant or other heart surgeries is often in there before and after," Bailey explained. "Immediately after, they're brought in on meds and breathing tubes. Doing everything to keep kids, hearts healthy. A comprehensive and large team necessary for this."

Bailey also noted that the comprehensive care required means bonding with the families who come into their unit. There are always going to be battles, but she says the kids who come in are fighters.

"You definitely have tough days and tough patients; patients who may not make it or stay as healthy," Bailey continued. "A favorite part is seeing patients get out and get back to living. You form a bond with family members and support them. Difficult, but rewarding. It's a joyous moment."

Part of the team takes dedicated nurses. Cami Daigle is the nurse manager for the cardiovascular intensive care unit or CVICU. She said the care experience demands everyone works in concert, and it's stellar at the hospital.

"The words "transplant's coming" are exciting, and it's all about collaboration," Bailey said. "A lot of patients are coming from an outpatient clinic or in-person unit. It's not just her unit, but all units working together. Teamwork shines at Levine's. Always working on education and ensuring the process is all smooth. Experts need to be experts on care."

RELATED: Greg Olsen's son undergoes heart transplant surgery

A comprehensive unit like this also requires special skills and knowledge about what goes into the transplant process, from getting donations arranged from Charlotte to receiving them for transplant. That's where Kati Robinson comes in; she has two specific certifications she specifically received to handle transplants and coordinating them.

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"When I do things, I like to do them well," Robinson said, highlighting the need to be exacting with the process. But it's not just the nitty-gritty of the donation that demands precision; she also notes a whole-health approach has to be taken with kids who need a heart transplant.

"The process isn't official until an offer from the United Network for Organ Sharing is made," Robinson explained. "Once the organ offer is identified, the transplant team reviews, and if deemed suitable for the recipient, the patient family is talked to. Air team, transport, blood team, all sorts of teams are involved. Organ donors can save up to eight lives so it's also about looking at other patients."

The team at Levine Children's discussed much of how they handle care for patients receiving a heart, but they didn't forget to touch on the bittersweet nature of these transplants; someone else has passed away, usually suddenly, which allows the donation to happen if the donor and their family have consented. 

Daigle discussed a special, somber ceremony as a donor is rolled to the operating room so their heart can be taken out: a hero walk, where doctors and nurses line the hallway leading to the OR to show their respect and reverence for the choice the donor family made.

"We see exciting transplants, and also on the donating side," Daigle said. "It's bittersweet because we know what happens. There's an honor to be a part of both sides. We started a hero walk for donors so everyone can line the walls of a hall for the donor. Not a dry eye. It brings strength to the whole program."

The donation process is bittersweet, but as Dr. Wallis notes, crucial. He emphasized toward the end of the panel that the loss a family faces will hurt, but the choice to donate organs is a noble one that gives another family a second chance.

"It's important to become an organ donor," Wallis added. "It is the ultimate gift and a way of saving multiple other lives. We don't have enough. We want to help more people."

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