It is significant to need a heart transplant, but even more so when you need a kidney as well. A Total Artificial Heart gave a Spokane man the time he needed to receive the gift of both organs from one donor.
Life changed unexpectedly
When the heart fails, it may be a result from a considerable event such as a heart attack. But it can also occur through overlooked, subtle signs, as it did for Spokane’s Greg Soumokil.
Within 24-hours of passing out at work, Greg, 56, was at Providence Spokane Heart Institute where a pacemaker and defibrillator were put in place to help manage his erratic heartbeat. Although both devices kept Greg’s heart going for several months, his health continued to deteriorate. He made several trips to the emergency department. His fatigue and appetite issues were challenging. Decisions needed to be made.
A revolutionary temporary solution
In 2020, Greg and his care team determined that a heart transplant was his best option. However, finding a heart for Greg was challenging. His blood type and tall height were limiting factors.
As the days passed waiting for a heart, the medical team tried a temporary balloon pump device and even ECMO, a life-support machine that pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.
Greg’s internal organs, especially one of his kidneys, began to feel the stress his body was going through and it became clear that options were limited. Although extremely rare, an artificial heart looked like the best option for Greg.
“With no heart available on the horizon, the Total Artificial Heart was the best way forward to help get him mobile, get him stabilized, so he could wait for his heart at home,” recalls M Cristi Smith, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon and surgical director for Heart Transplant, Mechanical Circulatory Support, and Adult ECMO at Providence Spokane Heart Institute.
The Total Artificial Heart would allow Greg to build strength and improve his health while he waited for a heart and kidney, whether that be weeks, months, or even a few years.
In May of 2021, Greg became the first patient to leave Providence Spokane Heart Institute with the Total Artificial Heart. He was one of only 28 people in the world to live with this medical miracle at that time. There are only 10 people with the device in the United States, and 18 in Europe.
The life-changing phone call
In September of this year, just four months after leaving the hospital with his artificial heart, Greg and his wife Donna were in the car on their way to Sacred Heart for a checkup when Greg’s phone rang.
It was Greg’s transplant coordinator. “Are you ready for a new heart?” she asked. Greg paused. This was it. After so much worrying, so many days and nights in the hospital, a potential heart and kidney were identified as a match for Greg. The transplant coordinator told Greg he needed to get to the hospital to prepare for surgery.
As he settled into a familiar hospital room on Sacred Heart’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, Greg knew he was ready. Acknowledging that another family was hurting on a day he had waited so long for, Greg shares that he felt forever grateful for the gift of life.
“Heart is good”
Even though the heart seemed compatible based on Greg’s information in the organ recipient registry, his physicians needed to see the actual heart to ensure it would work well in Greg’s body.
Dr. Christi Smith, Dr. Dennis Nichols, and a small organ procurement team flew out early on a sunny September morning to examine the donor heart. Several suspenseful hours passed before the team back at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center received the awaited three words: “Heart is good.”
Not only was the heart suitable for Greg, but the kidney he needed was as well. Jennifer Pasko, M.D., a Providence Hepatobiliary surgeon, was waiting with the team and began to prepare for the kidney transplant that would follow the heart transplant.
After months and months of waiting for this day, both in the hospital and at home, the two surgeries Greg needed to transplant first a heart and then a kidney were successful.
Day by day, Greg got stronger and learned all about living with his new donor heart. The team that supported Greg through his Total Artificial Heart surgery and recovery was the same that follows him today in his post-transplant journey.
A new lease on life
Today, Greg is home and actively healing. He is thrilled to be back driving—something he couldn’t do with his Total Artificial Heart—and as a car aficionado, Greg missed the independence that comes with driving his favorite cars.
While Greg is eager to be back to full speed, including spending time at the lake and snow skiing with his grandchildren, his progress is gradual. He is getting stronger each day thanks to continued physical therapy with Providence St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Medical Center.
Greg’s journey has been long with twists and turns along the way. Through every step, Greg recalls the lifelong bond he made with his nurses, doctors, therapists, and other caregivers. He will forever be thankful for the care they provided, the technology they used to keep him alive, and the compassion they showed him and his family.
For more than 30 years, Providence has offered comprehensive transplant services that include kidney, pancreas, heart, and ventricular assist devices. These leading-edge programs help patients like Greg to get home and be supported in their community. To become an organ donor, visit organdonor.gov. To learn about heart transplant services and more, visit Providence Spokane Heart Institute.