Matthew Cohen for Reader's Digest Transplant recipient John Bell knows exactly where to find his first heart—the damaged one he lived with for 72 years. It’s floating in a three-gallon jug of formaldehyde at a large storage facility at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, along with hundreds of other human hearts. When he returns to the hospital for a checkup with his cardiologist, Bell contemplates stopping by to pay his old heart a visit. Why? Because at Baylor, the retired sales and marketing professional can do something almost no one else in the world has ever done. He can hold his heart in his hands.
“It was fairly emotional, that first encounter,” says Bell, who lives in Fort Worth. “I can’t actually explain why.”
Bell is one of more than 70 heart-transplant patients who have participated in Baylor’s Heart-to-Heart program. It was launched in 2014 by William C. Roberts, MD, a cardiac pathologist and the executive director of the Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute. Baylor is unique in allowing transplant patients to “meet” their old hearts. “Probably 99.5 percent of hospitals throw the hearts away after they send out a report,” Dr. Roberts says. “We keep them all.” They are used for further research: performing second pathological examinations, comparing the progress of different diseases among individual organs, and doing long-range studies. (These tests can detect the silent signs of heart disease.)
The Heart-to-Heart program happened almost by accident. With all those organs stored on the hospital’s shelves, Dr. Roberts would sometimes take a curious patient to visit his or her old ticker. But the doctor discovered that the visits could provide a kind of teachable moment. “Many of the patients are overweight, and I show them the fat on the heart,” says Dr. Roberts. “Some people have so much fat on their hearts that they float in a container of water.”
Courtesy Baylor Scott & White HealthThere’s a larger, almost existential lesson too. “I try to stress to these people that they are very lucky. They are one of the few that get a heart,” he says. There are an estimated six million Americans living with heart failure, but only 2,000 to 3,000 receive hearts each year in the United States.
Bell had suffered 25 years of heart problems, beginning with triple-bypass surgery at the age of 50. Then, in March 2014, he underwent transplantation because of congestive heart failure, in which the heart is unable to sufficiently circulate oxygenated blood throughout the body. While recovering, he asked if he could view a video of the operation. Bell was even more thrilled to find out he could see his old organ in person.
He remembers carefully holding his heart in front of his chest at approximately the same place it had lived just 12 days prior, though it had since been sliced into pieces as part of the operation and for further study. He was expecting something more akin to a bright red heart you’d see in a valentine, he says. Instead, the flesh was a pale gray. The whole organ was covered in yellow adipose tissue, or fat.
Bell was shown the original vein and artery grafts from the bypass surgery he’d had in 1993 and how two grafts were carrying the load of a third that had not worked properly from the start. His family members also got to see his heart, and the experience had a dramatic impact on his son, who vowed to start making healthier lifestyle choices. (Make these lifestyle changes to reduce your own risk of heart disease.) Bell had a similar reaction. He now exercises as much as his age allows and maintains an almost vegan diet. Holding his heart also gave him much-needed closure.
“It had caused so much pain and misery,” he says. “I guess I just wanted to get a last look at it and say, ‘Hey, I won.’”