“We may not have the same faith or beliefs as they do, but we respect their beliefs," said Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam, who performed the transplant
A 65-year-old Texas woman waited nearly two decades for a heart transplant.
Carolyn McLeod has needed a heart transplant since 2005, but it took her 18 years to get one because she refuses blood transfusions due to her beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness, USA Today reported.
According to Jehovah's Witnesses’ official website, the Bible “commands that we not ingest blood. So we should not accept whole blood or its primary components in any form, whether offered as food or as a transfusion.”
"While a heart transplant may be useful in preserving our lives temporarily, the Scriptures are clear that everlasting salvation is only possible through the offering of the greater Passover lamb, God's son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ," Carolyn's husband William McLeod, who also identifies as a Jehovah's Witness, told USA Today.
Once a beloved elementary school cafeteria manager in Austin, Carolyn has been ill since her heart failure diagnosis in 2005 and unable to work since 2010 because she fell ill so often.
“It was so much the day we had to tell them she was going on leave. I was crying in the principal's office,” William told USA Today.
Since then, two opportunities for a heart transplant in Austin have come and gone.
The first transplant fell through because Carolyn was “too sick” and doctors “didn't think she would survive the operation,” per William, and the second was not approved because she refused a blood transfusion.
Then, last year, Carolyn’s doctors in Austin sent her file to three hospitals that do bloodless transplants.
One hospital never responded and another told her she had too many comorbidities. (She had suffered two strokes and a heart attack, and has diabetes and chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension in her lungs.)
The third hospital, the University of Chicago Medical Center and transplant surgeon Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam, welcomed her case.
Jeevanandam “has received national attention for his skill in performing bloodless cardiac surgery,” according to his online profile for UChicago Medicine, which has been doing bloodless heart transplants and other heart surgeries for nearly 30 years, per USA Today.
According to the surgeon, most programs "don't want to take on the risk that you do a heart transplant and the patient ends up dying because they couldn't get blood" — but his does.
For bloodless heart transplants, Jeevanandam enlists bloodless coordinators, who verify to the Jehovah's Witnesses community that no blood enters the operating room.
“We may not have the same faith or beliefs as they do, but we respect their beliefs," he told USA Today.
There are also “a lot of tricks” Jeevanandam and his team do — including employing a different protocol for blood circulation and cauterizing the sternum where he cuts to access the heart — which result in the surgery typically taking 25 to 30 percent longer.
“It's a lot of thinking... where is the blood loss going to be and how do we prevent it from happening,” he told the outlet.
After Carolyn’s case was accepted, she and William made the trek from Austin to Chicago. The city’s Jehovah's Witnesses community set them up in an apartment near the hospital where they could wait for a heart to become available, and where Carolyn could heal for a year after the procedure.
On Sept. 2, a heart became available and two days later, Carolyn entered the operating room. After four hours, the transplant was complete.
"I nearly collapsed when he told me everything had gone all right," William said.
A few weeks later, Carolyn felt “as though nothing happened,” she told USA Today. "I don't feel like I had a heart transplant.”
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William called his wife's progress “incredible,” and hopes that “with a little physical conditioning, she's going to be more like what she was like before.”
Today, she is still recovering in Chicago with her husband, and “feeling good," she told the outlet, adding that she was recently “able to trek a whole lot farther than I've done in months.”
As Carolyn heals, she said her heart donor is always on her mind.
“I'm grateful for what I have, to get this heart," she told USA Today. "I'm sorry someone had to die for me to get it.”
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