Providence's Heart Transplant Program Ready, At Least One Patient Lined Up

Providence St. Vincent Medical Center is poised to perform heart transplants the second week in July.

That announcement on Wednesday follows full approval by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which oversees the safety and quality of organ transplants in the U.S. A subcommittee of the network gave interim approval earlier this month, The Lund Report revealed. The program will be based at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, which is adding a new critical care unit with 16 beds in the lower level of the hospital to handle medical patients. The cardiac program will remain on the first floor, which has an intensive care unit for heart patients.

The program, which already appears to have a heart transplant candidate, was partially funded by $75 million from Phil and Penny Knight.

“Frankly, starting this transplant program is a pretty exciting thing -- for our doctors, for our staff, for our hospital,” Dr. Dan Oseran, executive medical director of the Providence Heart Institute, said in an interview taped by Providence. “I think it’s really raising the morale a little bit. Here’s something a little exciting and good that we can do so we’re happy to be able to do it especially at this time.”

Providence recently recruited a new surgical director for the transplant team. Dr. Kevin Koomalsingh is a heart transplant surgeon from the University of Washington in Seattle where he served as surgical director of that heart transplant program. It’s the second busiest on the West Coast, with 84 transplants performed over the past year and a four-bar rating -- one down from a top ranking of five -- for one-year survival rates from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.

Koomalsingh has been working with the Providence team for a year, treating many Oregon heart failure patients who needed a transplant. 

“Really over the last year he has been our transplant surgeon, just operating in Seattle,” Oseran said, “and now he’ll be with the team so the team’s very comfortable with him.”

Koomalsingh replaced Dr. Brian Bruckner, who Providence hired last year to be its heart transplant surgical director from Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center in Houston, Texas. But after the pandemic hit, Bruckner returned to Houston for personal reasons, Providence said.

The team also includes another heart transplant surgeon -- Dr. Gary Ott. Providence hired a registered nurse, Peggy Higby, to be the program's administrator. The team has six heart failure cardiologists, including Dr. Jill Gelow, who left Oregon Health & Science University when its heart transplant program imploded in 2018. One of her patients there was Shawn Meadows-Cortes, a 51-year-old from Medford who was born with a poorly developed heart. She had four heart attacks by the time she was 2. Surgeons implanted a pacemaker but that forced more operations. In 1986 at the age of 16, after 10 heart-related surgeries, Meadows-Cortes had a heart transplant at OHSU. It was performed by Dr. Albert Starr, a famed cardiovascular surgeon who invented an eponymous heart valve. 

About 13 years ago, Gelow became Meadows-Cortes’ heart failure cardiologist. When Gelow moved to Providence, Meadows-Cortes followed.

“Dr. Gelow is the best doctor,” Meadows-Cortes told The Lund Report. “She’s like family.”

Meadows-Cortes said that unlike some doctors, who rush through visits, Gelow takes her time.

“Dr. Gelow is always there,” Meadow-Cortes said. “You can talk to her about anything whether it’s personal or medical. She listens to you.”

Meadow-Cortes went to St. Vincent earlier this year to discuss a new transplant. Her heart, which came from a 42-year-old, is worn out.

Meadow-Cortes will have to go through tests to get on a waiting list. Providence will start to build that list in July, but the timing of the first transplant will depend on organ availability and their health status relative to other patients waiting for a heart transplant, Oseran said.

The last time Providence performed a heart transplant was in 2012. It closed the program because of low demand. Now Portland will have two competing programs - at Providence and Oregon Health & Science University. 

OHSU closed its program for a year, reopening last August. It performed its first heart transplant in nearly two years in April. Providence is still caring for 300 post-transplant patients from OHSU, and it has 80 heart failure patients who’ve had a heart assist device implanted.

Besides Gelow, three other heart transplant specialists also left OHSU to join Providence: Robin Miller, who has a doctorate in nursing; Christina Leese, a nurse and heart transplant coordinator; and Yukiko Sakata, also a nurse and heart transplant coordinator.

Providence said it’s hired a seventh heart failure cardiologist who will start in August.

The program will have to perform 10 heart transplants to earn certification from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. That certification ensures reimbursement for Medicare patients. Heart transplants can cost more than $1 million, and hospitals need to recoup as much as they can from CMS.

Providence, which has billions in reserves, is prepared to perform those first 10 operations for free.

Oseran said the program expects to perform 10 to 15 heart transplants over the next year.

“We’ve been taking care of heart failure patients for many years and we’ve provided all of the services for heart failure except for that last piece, transplant,” Oseran said. “It’s not going to be something that we do every day. But having that option for our patients, for Oregonians, for our community, I think is part of our mission and part of our responsibility.”

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.

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