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UChicago doctors set Illinois record with 55 heart transplants this year, including two on Thanksgiving

Doctors at the South Side hospital spent the holiday performing back-to-back transplants that set a new record in Illinois.

Doctors perform a heart transplant Thursday at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Doctors perform a heart transplant Thursday at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Provided by UChicago Medicine

While turkeys were brining across the Chicago area early Thursday, before any ovens were pre-heating, transplant doctors at the University of Chicago Medicine were just getting to work in the operating room.

Seventeen hours and back-to-back heart transplants later, two families had a lot more to be thankful for — and the South Side hospital had set a new record for Illinois care centers.

UChicago Medicine doctors have now completed 55 heart transplants so far this year, and for the health care workers who performed the life-saving procedures, it was worth showing up late to their own Thanksgiving gatherings.

“Everyone on the team was thankful that they could spend that time saving a life,” said Dr. Sean Pinney, who heads the institution’s heart failure program. “We love spending time with our families, but it’s truly an honor and a privilege to give up time to save and extend lives for other families.”

Pinney said he expects UChicago to perform top 60 heart transplants by the end of the year, a significant jump from Illinois’ previous record of 54, set in 2018 at Northwestern Medicine.

While larger hospital systems on the east and west coasts perform 90 or more heart transplants yearly, UChicago has averaged about 40 in recent years.

Pinney, who treats patients before and after the complex surgeries, said that’s because more patients and outside health care centers are putting trust in UChicago, which has ranked at the top nationally in terms of survival rate. It’s also one of the only hospitals in the country to perform triple organ transplants, which cover the heart, liver and kidney in one extremely challenging fell swoop.

But regular heart transplants like the two performed Thursday still require a careful orchestration of logistics and medical expertise.

Health care workers perform a heart transplant Thursday at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Health care workers perform a heart transplant Thursday at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Provided by UChicago Medicine

The process starts with pre-transplant coordinators who get patients on the waiting list for a new heart, followed by donation specialists who evaluate potential donor matches — and harvesting teams who often fly cross-country in the dead of night to secure the organ.

And that’s all before the surgery that takes up to eight hours to complete, followed by months of follow-up care.

“It’s the ultimate team sport,” said Pinney, who added that the biggest contribution is made by the families decide to donate their loved ones’ organs.

“We celebrate the fact that we’re able to save patients and return them to happy and healthy life with their family and friends, but it’s all because of the generosity of donor families. We recognize that they’re the ones making the ultimate gift at the most difficult moments of their lives,” he said. “We can’t thank them enough.”