University Performs Georgia’s First Heart Transplant
On June 27, 1984, Tyronze Ingram, age 31, received a new heart at University Hospital in what would be Georgia’s first heart transplant. To call the procedure risky or experimental at the time would be a drastic understatement. When G. Lionel Zumbro Jr., M.D., took a “cold, still heart from an ice-packed cooler and sewed it into Tyrone Ingram’s chest,” University Hospital found itself in truly uncharted territory.
While suffering from degenerative heart disease, Ingram bravely became “the captain of the ship” on the maiden voyage of a new cardiac transplant program launched by University Hospital and its team of thoracic surgeons, including Dr. Zumbro, William R. Kitchens, M.D., and Ronald F. Galloway, M.D. Less than a week later, Ingram was taken off his respirator and was reported to have excellent heart function.
As is often the case with groundbreaking efforts, however, being first inherently involved making mistakes and learning from them. The world’s first successful heart transplant was attributed to South Africa’s Christiaan Barnard in 1967, and by 1968 about 100 such procedures had occurred. However, the high mortality rate soon made it clear that “the major problem was the body’s natural tendency to reject the new tissues,” and only 18 transplants were attempted in 1970. Research continued, and by the early 1980s, immunosuppression drugs came of age, making organ transplant a legitimate reality, with the world’s first successful pediatric heart transplant coming in 1984.
The mortality rate for heart transplants remained high, and the controversial transplant program at University was discontinued in 1989. Dr. Zumbro himself had overseen the patient selection process and often “grew too personally attached . . . and chose patients who today would be turned down by most heart programs because they were too sick.”
In some instances, miracles occurred. One of these “too sick” patients was Linda Black, who suffered from a rare heart-respiratory disease and weighed only 82 pounds when she underwent Georgia’s first successful heart-lung transplant on July 23, 1987. The organs were donated by a Florida teenager who died in a car accident. “I was relieved there was someone out there willing to let part of their child go to give me a chance at life,” Black said. “To me, [the organs] have become mine. But on the 23rd each July, we celebrate her birthday. It’s a ritual that part of her is still alive.”
Black lived until March 2002. And despite the challenges of getting this experimental program off the ground, the pioneering doctors of the early University Hospital transplant program succeeded in adding weeks, months and years of precious time to the lives of patients who once believed their days were numbered.