State's first woman heart transplant patient celebrates 25 years of life
Saint Thomas performed surgery, now celebrates milestone
BY JUANITA COUSINS • THE TENNESSEAN
Jan Vaughn is a matriarch of hearts.
Her advice is to listen to transplant coordinators and drink plenty of water.
She moved from Nashville to De Bary, Fla., three years ago, but still takes phone calls from nervous patients awaiting new hearts.
During a reunion, Vaughn, wearing a red blouse and green ribbon, showed off pictures of her daughter and granddaughter to those long-distance friends and the doctors that restored her life.
Heart transplant recipients reunited with their surgeons and nursing staff last week to celebrate Saint Thomas Hospital's 25th anniversary since performing the first heart transplant in Tennessee.
“I thank each of you for what you have contributed to the these 25 years,” said Vaughn, 66. “It warms my heart.”
While pregnant with her only daughter, Vaughn developed cardiomyopathy, a degenerative disease of the heart muscle. After a decade on steroids and a heart attack on Thanksgiving, doctors told her the only hope for survival was a heart transplant.
Vaughn and her husband, Mike, were worried that he would have to give up his career as an attorney, which meant sacrificing health insurance, so that they could move to California to go on an organ recipient list.
Then in 1985, Saint Thomas Hospital in Belle Meade gave their family a second shot at life.
“We knew if it was successful, then it would be a great impact in Tennessee,” Mike said.
She sold her car because she thought she would never drive again, but within three months Vaughn was volunteering at Glenview Elementary, walking three miles through parks and driving.
The Sept. 7 reception fell on the exact transplant “birthday” of Jan, the state’s first female heart transplant recipient. The homemaker received the heart of a 19-year-old Cookeville father.
He intentionally overdosed on the same prescription Jan was taking to alleviate her heart condition, she said.
“Saint Thomas Hospital is a pioneer in heart transplantation,” said Dr. E. Dale Batchelor, Saint Thomas Hospital CEO.
“Transplantation continues to be a last resort for so many patients facing heart failure and heart disease.”
Vaughn’s surgeons, Dr. David Glassford and Dr. John Lea, are still on staff at Saint Thomas and were among a group of physicians that founded the Tennessee Heart Institute at Saint Thomas Hospital in March 1984, with a major goal to develop a heart transplant program.
Glassford traveled to Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., and spent three months studying heart transplants.
Lea did the same at the Methodist Hospital of Indianapolis. They returned to Nashville and practiced heart transplants on pigs at Meharry Medical College.
Within one year, Nashville Regional Organ Procurement Agency located a donor, and they performed their first heart transplant in Belle Meade.
Over the past four decades, the hospital has become a regional destination for Middle Tennessee residents with heart-related illnesses.
The next transplant will be number 350 for the hospital, but Glassford and Lea say that is news to them.
“We were trying to give the people of Middle Tennessee, Kentucky and North Alabama an opportunity that otherwise they would not have had,” said Glassford.
“They come to the hospital with the goal to return to normal.”
Saint Thomas does 12 to 20 heart transplants each year, but the hospital doesn’t track its survival rates, because many of its patients move and get their annual care out of state, said spokesman Paul Lindsley.
The Tennessee region survival rate at one year is 85 percent, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network.
Of the eight transplants performed at Saint Thomas in 1985, Vaughn is the only surviving patient.
The transplant surgery and recovery process which once took months has dwindled to less than two weeks, said Heather Marshall, the Saint Thomas heart transplant program coordinator who works with recipients.
After medical evaluation, the patients are listed by blood type on the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit organization that manages the national organ transplant system.
The average hospital stay after a transplant is now 11 days, there are less side effects because of new medicine, patients can follow up with local physicians instead of surgeons and society is more comfortable with organ sharing, she said.
“It’s a tough decision for families to make,” Marshall said. “Everyone needs to talk about their donor wishes with their families and have a living will.”
Hospital staff that have witnessed the evolution of heart transplants and their impact on patients and their families say it is valuable beyond measure.
“It has just been wonderful, because when the transplant program started, we had to apply to be on the team,” said critical care nurse Saramma George. “All hearts came all of a sudden, and we didn’t have enough staff.”
She would dress in mask, gloves and shoe covers and wash her hands before entering patients’ rooms and would say at their bedside for hours, never leaving them unsupervised. She even rescheduled a vacation to India to be at the side of George Lowery when he awoke from surgery.
While on his way to work, Lowery, of Lebanon, had a heart attack in driveway. He could not walk, had difficulty talking and was in intensive care for three months.
“He kept saying that when he woke up, he wanted me to be the first one he would see without the mask,” George said. “It was very rewarding and very wonderful.
Then came what his wife Lynn calls the “timely gift of life” on Feb. 29, 1988.
“When I came out of the operation room, I didn’t think they did anything until I opened my shirt and saw a scar,” said Lowery, 70, moving his finger across his chest as his eyes swelled with conviction.
Within five months, the electrical supervisor was back at work and stayed until his retirement in 2003.
George smiles and places her hands on Lowery’s shoulders. Although he no longer needs her support, she needs his smile as a testimony to the hospital’s good work.
She keeps photo albums and scrapbooks of newspaper articles and pictures of hospital staff and patients and reunites with them at holiday parties and picnics.
“It is very close-knit, like a family,” George said.