As Northwestern Memorial Hospital celebrated a record number of heart transplants this year, its most famous heart recipient, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, took the stage Monday to share his story.
It was nearly three years ago when Munoz, on the morning of his birthday, received a call from his doctor who exclaimed: “Have we got a kick-ass heart for you!”
On Monday at a news conference at the hospital, Munoz said: “I’m back to doing almost everything I was able to do before.”
The hospital so far this year has conducted 54 heart transplants, a record in Illinois. The previous record, 45, was set in 1995.
And with two weeks left in the year, the number could go up.
There is about a 93 percent survival rate in the group of 54 transplant recipients from 2018. For the previous 2.5 years the survival rate of recipients was 93 percent. Dr. Allen Anderson, medical director of the Center for Heart Failure at Northwestern’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, provided the information, citing a recent preliminary analysis by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.
“These are outcomes in line with high-quality, experienced programs who transplant patients of varying complexity,” Anderson said.
Munoz thought back on the day that led him to heart transplant surgery.
He was working out and, when his legs began to feel wobbly, took the advice of a cardiologist friend who once told him: “If you ever feel weird, call 911 and immediately tell them where you are because you may not make it past the phone call.”
Munoz said the tip saved his life.
“I thought of his words and immediately called 911 and 38 minutes later I was on life support,” said Munoz, whoregularly visits hospital rooms to share his story and chat with other heart patients.
There have been 167 total heart transplants performed in Illinois in 2018 — also a record — and up from 139 the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Organ Procurement and Transportation Network.
The increase is due to several factors.
One grim contributing factor is the uptick in recent years of overdose deaths among young people. “Usually their organs are pretty pristine,” said Anderson.
Another factor is the advance in treatment of hepatitis C, which previously rendered many organs from infected donors unusable.
A suicide epidemic and homicides in Chicago have also been significant sources of donation, said Kevin Cmunt, CEO of Gift of Hope, which coordinates donations in Illinois and Northwest Indiana.
The expanded staff of Gift of Hope — 50 percent more staff in the past five years — who regularly make contact with family members to talk about organ donation is also important to note, Cmunt said.
It’s an odd time to make a pitch, but timing counts.
“Maybe you can have a different ending to this story, if you’re interested, we can talk about donation,” Cmunt said his staff will tell loved ones.
“Can you imagine?” Munoz said, marveling at the task. “It’s one of the hardest things to go to a family that just lost a loved one and ask to, in essence, use their parts,” Munoz said.
It’s a law that the deaths of certain patients who are potential donors are brought to the attention of Cmunt’s organization, which regularly sends staffers to Chicago hospitals.