Born with a defective heart, two-week-old Harlow needed a transplant. As she awaits surgery, nurse Karen Elgert races across Canada to receive a suitable organ. Harlow’s operation begins, and Elgert returns with the heart for transplant. Today, Harlow is a happy and healthy toddler.
Journey of a Heart Transplant
Published October 10, 2018
Onscreen: Harlow is two weeks old. She is born with a fatal heart defect. Only a heart transplant can save her.
But for infants, donated hearts are extremely rare—and even if she gets a transplant, Harlow could face life-long health problems.
Simon Urschel: I think we all agree that transplant for sure gives her the best chance to lead as close as possible to normal life. You do know, however too, that it’s not gonna be a walk in the park. It is exchanging a life threatening situation in which she is now with kind of a chronic disease, or chronic abnormality. So, you know that she will life long depend on taking medications. And in children that are immune suppressed, that can cause a lymphoma, which is basically a type of leukemia and that’s not that uncommon. But I think in all fairness it’s important for you to be aware of that as a possible option. But also be aware that 90 percent of our kids do really, really well.
Judy Bergen: You think about going through the whole transplant and then maybe later on dealing with cancer or something like that. It’s terrifying. It’s just something we’ve got to do. We love her and just want her to have the best life she can possibly have, so…
Jason Bergen: I don’t think we have many options at this point.
Judy Bergen: No
Judy Bergen: Good Morning
Onscreen: All across Canada, organ donation team will now be on alert for a heart for Harlow.
Karen Elgert: Yeah.
Nurse: Watch your pulmonal bleed.
Onscreen: Karen Elbert is overseeing the search.
Elgert: Pulmonal bleed on.
Onscreen: Karen is a nurse with H.O.P.E., the hospital's human organ procurement team. Once a family decides to donate, she coordinates the whole process.
Elgert: So it’s gonna be…
Nurse: O.R. 6.
Elgert: O.R. 6, yeah. Wonderful, thank you, Chris.
Onscreen: Karen is in constant contact with hospitals across the country—she's the first to know when organs become available.
Voice on phone: So, I’m actually calling you with a heart offer.
Voice on phone: Blood type is O positive.
Onscreen: It's an infant heart, and it was found quickly. The Bergens have only had to wait for two weeks.
Urschel: I guess you can kinda guess what’s going on if we’re coming with the big team. So, we actually do have an organ for her—a little bit smaller child than her. It’s gonna be sometime tonight, coming out sometime tomorrow morning. So, just wanted to give you a head’s up. We’re pretty happy about it too. I think it’s actually the perfect time and it is a very good organ.
Onscreen: As Judy and Jason brace themselves for a long night of waiting, a massive effort gets underway to retrieve the heart for Harlow.
Elgert: Super. So we are now en route.
Onscreen: Karen and the team must fly across the country to retrieve the donated heart. They only have a few hours to bring it back and save Harlow's life.
Elgert: From the time the heart is stopped till the time that it’s beating again in the recipient, there’s a very finite time which is, like for adults about four hours, and then for peds, they may be upwards of six or seven. They don’t like that but sometimes you have no choice.
Elgert: Yeah, hi Dr. Rebeyka.
Ivan Rebekya: What’s going on?
Elgert: So the heart looks good.
Elgert: And our ETA is about 2:30 to 3:00.
Onscreen: Once the heart is close enough to Harlow, she is wheeled in and put to sleep. She must be ready for transplant as soon as the heart arrives. Every minute the new heart lacks oxygen comes at a cost.
Rebekya: They landed.
Onscreen: Surgeon Ivan Rebeyka has been in contact with Karen all night to calculate the perfect moment to open Harlow's chest.
Elgert: The coordinator was called.
Rebekya: No heart yet?
Onscreen: Just as the new heart enters the operating room, Harlow's damaged heart is removed.
Rebekya: Let’s see the new heart... Okay, are the lungs on?
Nurse: They are.
Rebekya: Let’s have a look here. Let’s just have a little peek, that left atrial line is a little bit fussy. Pull it back a smidge. Okay, that looks good. ‘Kay, start hemoing. So, heart’s on its own now. It’s a good heart, it just, it came from a long ways away, so it was in the bucket there for like five and a half hours. You know, this one, it started up like within two minutes of us taking that clamp off, and that’s usually a pretty good sign.
Rebekya: Hi. Mr. Bergen, we’ve met. I’m Dr. Rebeyka. How are you?
Jason Bergen: Good. Yourself?
Rebekya: Good. So, we’re all done. Everything went very, very well. So, heart’s working on its own now. It’s a bit early to relax completely, but things look pretty good so I think we’re in good shape.
Judy Bergen: Good.
Judy Bergen: Thank you.
Jason Bergen: Thank you.
Rebekya: I’ll talk to you later, folks.
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018
NOVA Transplanting Hope