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Despite Pandemic, 2020 Brought Increase in Heart Transplants

Heart surgeon Fardad Esmailian, MD, is the surgical director of the Heart Transplant Program in the Smidt Heart Institute. Photo by Cedars-Sinai

Heart surgeon Fardad Esmailian, MD, is the surgical director of the Heart Transplant Program in the Smidt Heart Institute. Photo by Cedars-Sinai

Cardiothoracic Surgeons at the Smidt Heart Institute Performed 128 Adult Heart Transplants in 2020, More Than Any Other Center in the Nation.

When Shari Baugh, 61, woke up on her birthday last October, she had two new reasons to be grateful for another trip around the sun: the healthy heart and kidney she had just received from Cedars-Sinai transplant surgeons.

“When I think about the timing of waking up after surgery on my birthday, it’s overwhelming,” said Baugh, a high school athletic director from Arcadia, California. “It’s also overwhelming how fortunate I was to receive this transplant during COVID-19. Not every person on a transplant list can say that.”

But at the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai, Baugh’s experience isn’t unique.

She is one of 128 adults who received lifesaving heart transplants, many coupled with other organs, at Cedars-Sinai during 2020. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), which manages the nation's organ transplant system, Cedars-Sinai remains No. 1 in adult heart transplants, a distinction the medical center has earned for the past 11 years.

"Every patient we transplanted in 2020, during this pandemic, gave me hope for the future," said Fardad Esmailian, MD, surgical director of the Heart Transplant Program at Cedars-Sinai. “I am so thankful that these patients trusted us with their care, in spite of all that was happening in the world.”

Baugh’s own gratitude is two-fold, not only because of her dual transplant in 2020, but because of the first heart she received in 2005. Her first heart transplant happened only days before her birthday.

“Both transplants are so similar,” said Baugh. “But the backdrop of coronavirus is obviously different.”

Baugh’s longtime cardiologist, Jon Kobashigawa, MD, director of the Heart Transplant Program, understands the stress many patients have endured throughout the pandemic as they waited for their lifesaving transplant.

“The large number of lives saved by our Heart Transplant Program is in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in an inordinate number of deaths, has disrupted families and waged economic hardship throughout the country,” said Kobashigawa. “Our achievement is only a small silver lining to this catastrophic pandemic.”

Despite the challenges 2020 brought, the Smidt Heart Institute had a milestone year.

From launching a clinic to treat heart damage in COVID-19 survivors and creating a new center to predict and prevent sudden cardiac arrest, to performing an open-heart surgery that got one teenager back to surfing waves, Cedars-Sinai has remained at the forefront of research while offering patients the best in heart care.

“In an unprecedented year, our colleagues rose to the occasion, improving clinical care and the scientific community alike,”

Joanna Chikwe, MD

Joanna Chikwe, MD

said Joanna Chikwe, MD, chair of the Department of Cardiac Surgery at the Smidt Heart Institute. “Most deserving of the praise, however, are the courageous patients who received transplants during a season of uncertainty, allowing our program to, in return, flourish.”

Andrew Klein, MD, co-director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center, says it was a similar story for other transplants done at the medical center.

“Even in the face of virtual and telephone visits, COVID-19 surges and understandable nerves from many of our patients, we remained on track to meet our annual transplant cases,” said Klein, the Esther and Mark Schulman Chair in Surgery and Transplantation Medicine. “Nothing was more important this year than being there for our patients for not only their lifesaving medical care, but to bring peace of mind and comfort during this truly unique season.”

As for Baugh, she's looking forward to an even better 2021.

“I hope for good health,” said Baugh. “After three long years of not feeling well, I am most excited to get back to work with my new level of energy.”

Read more from the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Faces of Cedars-Sinai: Cardiac Surgeon Dr. Pedro Catarino