Harry Wuest was the third patient to receive a heart transplant at Emory University Hospital in 1985. Today, as researchers are looking into alternatives to donated human hearts, he’s the longest-surviving heart transplant recipient in Georgia and one of the longest-surviving anywhere.
By Katja Ridderbusch
Whenever Harry Wuest has a doctor’s appointment in northern Atlanta’s hospital cluster dubbed “Pill Hill,” he makes sure to stop by the office of Dr. Douglas “Doug” Murphy for a quick chat.
And Murphy, unless he’s tied up in the operating room, always takes a few minutes to say hello to his former patient. “Remember when . . . ?” is how the conversation typically starts, and it’s always tinged with laughter, often joyful, sometimes bittersweet.
It’s a reunion of two men who shaped a piece of Georgia’s medical history.
Almost 35 years ago, Murphy opened the chest of Wuest and sewed in a new heart, giving him a second shot at life. Wuest was the third heart transplant patient at Emory University Hospital.
Tall, lanky, with short curly hair and a quiet demeanor, Wuest is the longest-surviving heart transplant recipient in Georgia and one of the longest-surviving in the world. The 75-year-old accountant still plays golf twice a week and only recently went from working full-time to part-time. “My heart is doing just fine,” he says.
Murphy is now the chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital and still in the operating room almost every day. He has moved on to become the world’s leading expert in robotically assisted heart surgery.
Harry Wuest is originally from Long Island, N.Y. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he moved to Florida to work and go to school. He wanted to become a physical education teacher. Then, in 1973, he fell ill. It started with some pain on his left side. He didn’t think much of it, but when he got increasingly winded and fatigued, he went to see a doctor.
Several months and numerous specialists later, he received the diagnosis: Cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that can make the heart become enlarged, thick and rigid, preventing it from pumping enough blood through the body.
“They didn’t know how I got it,” says Wuest, sitting back in a brown leather armchair in the dark, wood-paneled living room of his Stone Mountain home. Maybe it was a virus. “And back then, there wasn’t much they could do to treat it, except bed rest.”
For the next 12 years, Wuest lived life as best as he could. He got a degree in accounting from the University of Central Florida and worked for a real estate developer. There were good days, but there were more bad days. He was often too weak to do anything, and his heart was getting bigger and bigger.
The first successful human-to-human heart transplant was performed in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1967 – a medical breakthrough that catapulted the surgeon, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, onto the cover of Life magazine and to overnight celebrity status.
This highly publicized event was followed by a brief surge in the procedure around the world, but overall, heart transplants had a rocky start. Most patients died shortly after the surgery, mainly due to organ rejection. Back then, immunosuppressive drugs, which can counteract rejection, were still in their infancy. Many hospitals stopped doing heart transplants in the 1970s.
That changed with the discovery of a highly effective immunosuppressive agent. Cyclosporine got FDA approval in 1983 and altered the world of organ transplants.
It was shortly thereafter when Emory University Hospital decided to launch a heart transplant program, but none of the senior surgeons wanted to do it. Even with the new drug, it was a risky surgery, and mortality was still high.
“It’s an all-or-nothing operation,” Murphy says, as he sits down in his small office overlooking the greyish hospital compound. He’s wearing light blue scrubs from an early morning surgery. At 70, he still has boyish looks, with a lean build and an air of laid-back confidence. “If you have a number of bad outcomes initially, it can be detrimental to your career as a surgeon,” he says.
But Murphy didn’t really have a choice. He remembers that during a meeting of Emory’s cardiac surgeons in 1984, he was paged to check on a patient. When he returned, the physicians congratulated him on being appointed the head of the new heart transplant program. He was the youngest in the group and had been recruited from Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital just three years before.
“Yeah, that’s how I became Emory’s first transplant surgeon,” says Murphy.
He flew to California to shadow his colleagues at Stanford University Hospital, where most heart transplants were performed at the time. Back home at Emory, he put together a team and rigorously rehearsed the operation. The first transplant patient arrived in April 1985. The surgery was successful, as was the second operation less than a month later.
Around the same time, Harry Wuest wound up in a hospital in Orlando. He needed a transplant, but none of the medical centers in Florida offered the procedure. One of his doctors recommended Emory, and Wuest agreed. “I knew I was dying. I could feel it.” He was flown to Atlanta by air ambulance and spent several weeks in Emory’s cardiac care unit until the evening of May 23, when Murphy walked into his room and said, “We’ve got a heart.”
The heart, as the patient later learned, came from a 19-year-old sophomore at Georgia Tech who had been killed in a car crash.
Organ transplants are a meticulously choreographed endeavor, where timing, coordination, and logistics are key. While Murphy and his eight-member team were preparing for the surgery, Wuest was getting ready to say farewell to his family – his wife and three teenage sons and to thank the staff in the cardiac ward.
“I was afraid,” he recalls, especially of the anesthesia. “It scared the heck out of me.” He pauses during the reminiscence, choking briefly. “I didn’t know if I was going to wake up again.”
The surgery took six hours. Transplants usually happen at night because the procurement team, the surgeons who retrieve different organs from the donor, only start working when regularly scheduled patients are out of the operating room.
Despite the cultural mystique surrounding the heart as the seat of life, Murphy says that during transplant surgery, “it’s not like the big spirit comes down to the operating room. It’s very technical.” As the team follows a precise routine, emotions are kept outside the door. “We don’t have time for that. Emotions come later.”
Waking up from the anesthesia, Wuest’s first coherent memory was of Murphy entering the room and saying to a nurse, “Let’s turn on the TV, so Harry can watch some sports.”
Wuest spent the next nine days in the ICU and three more weeks in the hospital ward. In the beginning, he could barely stand up or walk, because he had been bedridden weeks before the surgery and had lost a lot of muscle. But his strength came back quickly. “I could finally breathe again,” he says. Before the surgery, he felt like he was sucking in air through a tiny straw. “I cannot tell you what an amazing feeling that was to suddenly breathe so easily.”
Joane Goodroe was the head nurse at Emory’s cardiovascular post-op floor back then. When she first met Wuest before the surgery, she recalls him lying in bed “and being very, very sick.” When she and the other nurses finally saw him stand up and move around, “he was a whole different person.”
In the early days of Emory’s heart transplant program, physicians, nurses, and patients were a particularly close-knit group, remembers Goodroe, who’s been a nurse for 42 years and now runs a health care consulting firm. “There were a lot of ‘firsts’ for all of us, and we all learned from each other,” she said.
Wuest developed friendships with four other early transplant patients at Emory, and he has outlived them all.
When he left the hospital, equipped with a new heart and a fresh hunger for life, Wuest made some radical changes. He decided not to return to Florida but stay in Atlanta. That’s where he felt he got the best care, and where he had found a personal support network. And he got a divorce. Four months after the operation, he went back to working full-time: first in temporary jobs and eventually for a property management company.
After having been sick for 12 years, “I was just so excited to be able to work for eight hours a day,” he recalls. “That was a big, big deal for me.”
At 50, he went back to school to get his CPA license. He also found new love.
Martha was a head nurse in the open-heart unit and later ran the cardiac registry at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. That’s where Wuest received his follow-up care and where they met in 1987. Wuest says for him it was love at first sight, but it took another five years until she finally agreed to go out with him. Six months later, they were married.
“Having worked in the transplant office, I saw the good and the bad,” Martha Wuest says. A petite woman with short, perfectly groomed silver hair, she sits up very straight on the couch, her small hands folded in her lap. “Not every transplant patient did as well as Harry. And I had a lot of fear in the beginning.” Now he may well outlive her, she says with a smile and a wink.
Wuest’s surgeon, meanwhile, went on to fight his own battles. Two and a half years into the program, Murphy was still the only transplant surgeon at Emory and on-call to operate whenever a heart became available. Frustrated and exhausted, he quit his position at Emory and signed up with Saint Joseph’s (which at the time was not part of the Emory system) and started a heart transplant program there.
At St. Joe’s, Murphy continued transplanting hearts until 2005. In total, he did more than 200 such surgeries.
“Being a heart transplant surgeon is a grueling profession,” he says, “and very much a younger surgeon’s subspecialty.”
He then shifted his focus and became a pioneer in robotically assisted heart surgery. He has done more than 3,000 operations with the robot, mostly mitral valve repairs and replacements – more than any other cardiac surgeon in the world.
Since Murphy sewed a new heart into Wuest, 35 years ago, there has been major progress in the field of heart transplants, but it has been uneven.
There is improved medication to prevent rejection of the donor heart, as well as new methods of preserving and transporting donor hearts.
Yet patients requiring late-stage heart failure therapy, including transplantation, still exceed the number of donor hearts available. In 2019, 3,551 hearts were transplanted in the United States, according to the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. But 700,000 people suffer from advanced heart failure, says the American Heart Association.
New technologies and continued research are providing hope to many of these patients. There has been significant progress in the development of partial artificial hearts, known as Left Ventricular Assist Devices, or LVADs. They can be used as bridge devices to keep patients alive until donor hearts are available, or as destination therapy, maintaining patients for the remainder of their lives.
Also, total artificial hearts have come a long way since the first artificial pump was implanted in a patient in 1969. “The technology is promising,” says Dr. Mani Daneshmand, the director of Emory’s Heart & Lung Transplantation Program. “But it’s not perfect.”
Long-term research continues into xenotransplantation, which involves transplanting animal cells, tissues and organs into human recipients.
Regenerative stem cell therapy is an experimental concept where stem cell injections stimulate the heart to replace the rigid scar tissue with tissue that resumes contraction, allowing for the damaged heart to heal itself after a heart attack or other cardiac disease. Certain stem cell therapies “have shown to reverse the damage to the heart by 30 to 50 percent,” says Dr. Joshua Hare, a heart transplant surgeon and the director of the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
All of these ideas have potential, says Daneshmand. But none of them are ready to replace a human donor heart. “A heart transplant remains the gold standard because you can’t accommodate the same success with a machine right now,” he says.
“Efforts around expanding the donor pool are really the best way to address this problem, while we wait for technology to catch up,” he adds.
Besides Emory, other health care systems in Georgia that currently have a heart transplant program are Piedmont Healthcare, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Augusta University Health.
Organ rejection remains a major issue, and long-term survival rates have not improved dramatically over the past 35 years. The 10-year survival is currently around 55 percent of patients, which makes long-term survivors like Harry Wuest rare in the world of heart transplants.
The United Network of Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which allocates donor hearts in the United States, doesn’t have comprehensive data prior to 1987. An informal survey of the 20 highest-volume hospitals for heart transplants in the 1980s found only a scattering of long-term survivors.
Being one of the longest-living heart transplant recipients is something that Wuest sees as a responsibility – to other transplant patients, but also to the donor’s family, which he’s never met. “If you as a transplant recipient reject that heart, that’s like a second loss for that family.”
Part of this responsibility is living a full and active life. Both he and Martha have three children from their previous marriages and combined they have 15 grandchildren. Most of their families live in Florida, so they travel back and forth frequently. Wuest still works as a CPA during tax season, and he does advocacy for the Georgia Transplant Foundation. In addition to golf, he enjoys lifting weights and riding his bike.
He’s had some health scares over the years. In 2013, he was diagnosed with stage 1 kidney cancer, which is in remission. Also, he crossed paths with his former surgeon, and not just socially. In 2014, Murphy replaced a damaged tricuspid valve in Wuest’s new heart. That operation went well, too.
Murphy says there are several reasons why Wuest has survived so long. “Obviously, his new heart was a very good match.” But a patient can have the best heart and the best care and the best medicines and still die a few months or years after the transplantation, the surgeon says. “Attitude plays a key role.”
Wuest was psychologically stable and never suffered from depression or anxiety, Murphy says. “He’s a numbers guy. He knew the transplant was his only chance, and he was set to pursue it.”
Wuest attributes his longevity to “a good strong heart” from his donor; good genetics; great doctors and nurses; and a life that he loves. “I’m just happy to be here,” he says.
Quoting his former surgeon and friend, he adds: “Doug always said, ‘Having a transplant is like running a marathon.’ And I’m in for the long haul.”
Katja Ridderbusch is an Atlanta-based journalist who reports for news organizations in the U.S. and her native Germany. Her stories have appeared in Kaiser Health News, U.S. News & World Report and several NPR affiliates.