For the first time in Illinois, surgeons successfully removed a heart that had stopped beating in a patient’s body and transplanted it to another person using a new science-fiction-like device.

Surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital announced on Wednesday that they had performed a heart transplant on October 12 using a machine called a “heart in a box”. This is a progress that doctors hope more hearts will be available for transplant. About 3,400 people nationwide are now waiting for a heart transplant, including 182 in Illinois.

Typically, hearts are only considered for transplant when the donor is suffering from brain d*ath, but the donor’s heart is still beating in the donor’s body, either on its own or with mechanical assistance. This can sometimes happen after an injury or drug overdose. In these cases, the heart is removed from the donor body and placed on ice for transport to the recipient, which must be completed within approximately four hours.

However, the “Heart in a Box” device allows surgeons to use hearts from donors who suffer from circulatory d*ath, which is when the heart and respiratory system stop working. Once the heart has stopped beating, surgeons have approximately 30 minutes to recover it and place it in the device. The device then resuscitates and supports her, pumping warm, oxygenated blood through her until the donor is transplanted.

The patient, who received a heart in Northwestern, is well and preparing to return home earlier this week, said Dr. Benjamin Bryner, associate director of heart transplantation and mechanical support and director of the expanded donation program at Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute Northwestern Medicine.

“I think this is one of the most significant advances in heart transplantation in several decades,” Bryner said. “It opens up many hearts that have been kind of rejected.”

Bryner estimates the device could increase the number of heart transplants by about 20% to 30% in Northwestern and the country as a whole. Northwestern currently performs around 30-40 heart transplants a year, Bryner said.

Until now, patients were usually not considered potential donors, unless brain d*ath occurred, which limited the number of hearts available. New technology is allowing surgeons to extract hearts from patients who are technically not brain dead but with no hope of recovery. These patients may also have suffered an injury or drug overdose and have lost almost all brain functions, but are not considered dead brains as they may have an intact reflex or a slight trickle of blood to the brain, Bryner said. They’re not considered donors unless there is no more hope, he said.

If the patient reaches this point, his family may decide to turn off life support so that he stops breathing and his heart stops beating. The person then suffers from cardiovascular d*ath, and surgeons can retrieve the heart and place it in the device for transport to another patient.

Because the device keeps the heart going, surgeons have more time to transplant it than with traditional methods. The device can keep the heart viable for eight or nine hours, compared to about four or five hours when the stopped heart is on ice before transplantation.

“Traditional methods make us limited in the time and distance we can travel,” said Dr. Duc Thinh Pham, director of heart transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Northwestern Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. “This device allows us to cover longer distances and for a (longer) period of travel.”

The device also allows surgeons more time to examine the condition of the heart for signs of injury or coronary artery disease before it is transplanted to another patient.

“Before, it was too risky to implant a heart that had stopped in someone and hope it would work,” Bryner said.

Only a handful of hospitals in the US use this technology to perform heart transplants, although hospitals in the UK and Australia have been using it for years, according to Northwestern. The technology is similar to those used for liver, lung and kidney transplantation in recent years, incl. in the Chicago area.

The new portable device is called the TransMedics Organ Care System Heart System and was recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for use with organs from donors following cardiac d*ath.

An article published in the journal Cureus earlier this year noted that the technology has the potential to increase the number of hearts available for transplant, but is costly and can be more complicated to transport than ice-preserved hearts.

Pham called the device one of the greatest advances he has seen in heart transplantation and said it could benefit more patients with heart failure. It also encourages people to register as an organ donor. In Illinois, people can register by going to or by calling 1-800-210-2106.

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