Georgetown man’s new heart came in a box
The words ‘I’ve had a change of heart’ on the back of Steve Gilland’s T-shirt only tells part of the story.
While it’s true the 59-year-old has had a heart transplant, there’s no mention that the donor heart arrived in a see-through box, was beating and pumping blood and could be monitored.
Steve, a 1975 graduate of Corydon Central High School (his last name was Ramsey then), was the first person in Indiana to receive a transplant in what’s called a ‘heart in a box’ procedure.
Dr. I-Wen Wang, the cardiothoracic surgeon at IU Health in Indianapolis who performed the surgery Feb. 24, said this new method, which is being used in clinical trials in eight locations throughout United States, more than doubles the time a donor heart is considered to be viable versus the traditional cold-storage method.
The box device used to store the heart was commercially designed in Europe, where similar transplants are further along in the testing stage than in the United States. Australia also has been using the heart-in-a-box method longer.
With the cold-storage method, the opportune time is four hours; that’s from the time the heart stops beating, is removed and transported to where the recipient is and the surgery itself.
Wang said the plan for Gilland’s surgery ‘was a bit conservative,’ mostly because it was the first one for the facility.
Steve’s wife, Stephanie, recalls the day of the transplant, saying Steve was prepped at 9 a.m. After some time had passed with no news, she became concerned until she was reassured that her husband was fine despite the procedure being stopped for a while.
‘We were waiting for the new heart to get acclimated,’ Wang said of the delay.
A donor heart in a box can be rewarmed to a ‘normal’ temperature, he said.
Steve, a fitness trainer (the Gillands own Anytime Fitness in Corydon and Floyds Knobs), wasn’t even aware until late December that he had a heart problem.
Slight dizzy spells he began experiencing a couple of years ago and shortness of breath during a rigorous bicycle ride last fall were likely indications his body was trying to tell him something, he said.
Instead, he chalked it up to getting older. He continued teaching fitness classes.
Then, on Dec. 24, after ‘huffing and puffing’ to get to his seat at Lambeau Field to watch the Green Bay Packers take on the Minnesota Vikings, the couple decided there was likely a serious problem. That’s when their lives took an unplanned turn.
Steve was admitted to Floyd Baptist Health in New Albany on Jan. 19 and then was transported by ambulance to Indianapolis; his heart had gone into atrial fibrillation (when the heart beats irregular and often rapidly). Tests revealed his heart weighed 650 grams (an average heart weighs 240 grams) and had a leaky valve.
‘My body had adjusted to being inefficient,’ Steve said.
After a battery of tests revealed no other problems, he was placed on the list to receive a new heart. Among the criteria was finding one similar in size.
The couple said waiting was one of the toughest aspects of the whole ordeal. To be at the top of the transplant list, Steve was required to stay at IU Methodist in Indianapolis, where he could be monitored daily. It was during this time that he happened across an online article about ‘heart in a box’; however, it wasn’t until later that Dr. Wang mentioned the facility was part of a clinical trial for the procedure.
After being assured there was no downside to the procedure, Steve agreed to participate in the trial.
Wang said the recovery time is shortened for patients who receive a donor heart that arrives in a box, thus reducing the cost of the hospital stay.
‘It’s a very consistent outcome,’ he said.
For Steve, however, there was no cost to him or his insurance company because he was a trial participant. Wang said the procedure was funded by the Methodist Hospital Foundation.
Just the disposable component of the box is valued between $35,000 and $40,000, Wang said.
Steve was sitting up in a recliner the day after his transplant and took his first steps two days after surgery. He was allowed to return home two weeks later but makes weekly trips to Indianapolis for follow-up tests, including heart catheterizations so the heart can be biopsied to check for rejection.
Friday was his last day of ‘house arrest,’ his term for doctors’ orders of avoiding public places.
When asked to compare a heart-in-a-box method with the cold-storage transport, Wang said, ‘We expect this method to work equally well.’
‘Sometimes it’s a leap of faith,’ he said, as a donor heart relies on mechanical support which isn’t always accurate.
Wang expressed his appreciation to the Gillands for participating in the clinical trial.
‘It’s very commendable of them,’ he said, especially since there was ‘no guarantee’ of a favorable outcome.
The Gillands praised the staff at IU Health, whom Stephanie said ‘made us feel so comfortable,’ and said they were thankful for their church family (they belong to Northside Christian in New Albany).
Steve is grateful for his second chance at life.
‘I’m still around for my kids and family,’ Steve said.
The couple have four sons ‘ a 14-year-old, a 19-year-old and two grown children ‘ and five grandchildren.
Besides encouraging others to become organ donors (see related story above), the Gillands hope everyone will be advocates for their own health.
‘I was so independent,’ Steve said, who went from zero medications in 2016 to 19 since his transplant.
‘It sure makes you appreciate your health,’ he said.
Even if the person contains ‘donated parts,’ as indicated by Steve’s T-shirt.
Organ donation provides ‘greatest gift’
Being an organ donor was something Steve and Stephanie Gilland had believed in, even to the extent of signing on to be one when they die.
But earlier this year, Steve became the recipient of a donor heart.
The 59-year-old Georgetown man is grateful to the family who lost a loved one in order that he could receive a new heart.
‘I would like to meet up with the donor’s family,’ he said, adding that he will write a letter asking for that opportunity.
Information surrounding donations are kept confidential, with the recipient knowing next to nothing about the donor.
In the meantime, the Gillands are promoting the importance of being an organ donor.
In the United States, there are about 120,000 people who are waiting for an organ transplant that could potentially extend their life. Still, there are others in need of tissue or corneal transplants that would give them mobility or sight.
According to Donate Life Indiana, another person is added to the waiting list about every 10 minutes while 22 people waiting for an organ die each day.
‘People get buried every day with their organs,’ said Stephanie, who was wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘Donate life.
She says what her husband has gone through has made her think differently about life.
Seventy-five lives, that’s the number that one organ, eye and tissue donor can save and heal, says Donate Life Indiana.
There are more than 3.7 million people in Indiana registered as organ donors.
Others may be hesitant to do so because of concerns.
The Indiana Donor Network (formerly the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization) answers some of those in its Frequently Asked Questions section. Medical professionals’ priority doesn’t change just because the patient is an organ donor; their top goal is to save lives. Once a person is declared dead, then discussion can turn to the possibility of donations.
A person, regardless of their medical history, can register as an organ donor as long as he or she is at least 18. And signing up via the National Donate Life Registry provides one’s wish to be an organ donor stays with him or her regardless of where he or she lives.
The Gillands hope others will consider being that person to give a second chance to someone who is in need of a life-saving organ transplant.
‘It’s the greatest gift anybody can give,’ Stephanie said.
To become an organ donor, go online to https://www.donatelifeindiana.org/donor-registration.