600th Heart Transplant

600th Heart Transplant

Cherron Gilmore called her husband as she sat anxiously in a North Carolina hospital room in September 2018. They both were listening intently when— at age 37—Gilmore learned she was going to die.

“You’re at too much risk and we don’t think you’ll make it through surgery,” Gilmore said the doctor told her. “Even if we put it in, we don’t think you’ll make it through transplant.”

It was the fourth time she was turned town for a heart transplant from three hospitals in her home state.

Without knowing how much time she had left, Gilmore began preparing for her death by writing goodbye letters to her three children, ages 17, 13 and 8. She drafted notes filled with the musings she’d like her young daughter to know when she went to prom and on her future wedding day.

It was not until Gilmore was medevacked to VCU Medical Center—defeated and on her deathbed—that she realized her story did not yet have an ending.

A Fatal Diagnosis During Pregnancy

Gilmore was 29 and pregnant with her third child in 2010 when she was diagnosed with peripartum cardiomyopathy, often referred to as postpartum cardiomyopathy—a rare condition characterized by weakness of the heart muscle during pregnancy. However, her local doctors didn’t know right away that there was an issue.

It was not until Gilmore was medevacked to VCU Medical Center—defeated and on her deathbed—that she realized her story did not yet have an ending.

“I started having some symptoms that didn’t feel like pregnancy symptoms,” Gilmore said.

The first doctor told her the extreme shortness of breath was normal, and everything was fine. Knowing what it was like to have carried two children prior, Gilmore got a second opinion.

The second doctor came bearing the bad news.

“When you’re pregnant, you don’t even know [peripartum cardiomyopathy] is a possibility,” Gilmore said. “I’d never heard of it.”

Gilmore gave birth to a daughter, Khori, three months early. The baby weighed only three pounds. Mother and daughter spent a combined month and a half in intensive care following the delivery. To compound the matter, Gilmore’s heart wasn’t recovering. 

“You’re supposed to be able to recover once the baby is removed, and I guess I was just one of those women who didn’t.”

Cherron Gilmore (center) with the Mechanical Circulatory Support CoordinatorsSix months after the delivery, Gilmore’s doctors gave her an implantable cardioverter defibrillator because she was in danger of experiencing sudden death.

“It just went all the way downhill from there,” she said.

In 2011, her heart function was declining. She visited three hospitals before a doctor told her she needed a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted in her heart to help it pump blood. Without the procedure, she had only one month left to live.

“When I got my LVAD, it was so unexpected,” Gilmore said. “We weren’t prepared at all. It was like, if we don’t put this thing in right now, you’re not going to wake up tomorrow type of thing.”

Gilmore underwent the LVAD procedure and went on to live a normal life for nearly eight years. She got her children ready for school each morning, participated in local heart walks, and was selected as a 2018 Forsyth County Go Red Woman for having made lifestyle changes to be heart healthy.

She was doing well, until she wasn’t.

Four Times Denied

In August 2018, Gilmore’s health declined dramatically.

“She did seem like she recovered well enough, so a year [after the LVAD procedure] they took her device out,” said cardiac surgeon Dr. Daniel Tang as he reflected on Gilmore’s case. “She then had recurrent heart failure. And not only did it recur, but it was just as bad as before.”

No medications or lifestyle changes were making a difference as her health declined. “I had been denied four times for a transplant,” Gilmore said.

One hospital told her she was at too much risk for a heart transplant. Another said she wasn’t sick enough. “Everybody has their own reasons for why. … It was so many different factors. I had built up a wall because I felt like everywhere I went, they didn’t know how to treat me,” Gilmore said.

Feeling tired, defeated and on the brink of death, Gilmore had just about given up when her local hospital referred her to VCU Health.

“When I came [to VCU Medical Center] it was at night and I was flown here by a helicopter. I had just been told by my local hospital that they were ready to pull the plug on me,” she said.

“From the moment I got off that helicopter, [I felt like the team] was like, ‘OK, let’s do this. Let’s get her work done,’” Gilmore said. “I was just confused, because I came from someplace where everything was dark and gloomy, to a place that said, ‘Well, we can do that.’”

Cherron Gilmore and husband Geoffrey“When I Woke Up, I Was Painless”

“When she was transferred, she was pretty sick,” Tang said.

Gilmore was admitted to the hospital on Sept. 6 and within four days was in the operating room, where Tang and a skilled team removed her heart and replaced it with a total artificial heart.

Total artificial heart implants are rare, but they are becoming an option for those on the waitlist for a heart transplant. “In the future, many patients unable to receive a heart transplant may instead get an artificial heart that is fully internalized and silent,” said Dr. Vigneshwar Kasirajan. “The next five to 10 years, I expect we will see some pretty remarkable advances in this technology.”

According to SynCardia, the manufacturer of the total artificial heart, VCU Medical Center ranks No. 4 worldwide in total artificial heart implants, having implanted 114 to date. Kasirajan said the medical center is one of the most active sites in the country for total artificial hearts.

With her total artificial heart, Gilmore was able to go home to be with her family. Three weeks later, she got the call she had been praying for: She was getting a heart.

“From the moment I got off that helicopter, [I felt like the team] was like, ‘OK, let’s do this. Let’s get her work done,’” Gilmore said. “I was just confused, because I came from someplace where everything was dark and gloomy, to a place that said, ‘Well, we can do that.’”

“It was almost like my body needed a couple weeks to heal up and then boom. It happened so fast,” she said. “When I got [the call] I was like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’”

The next day, at sunrise on an October morning, she was back in the operating room as Kasirajan and the heart transplant team performed the surgery Gilmore never thought would happen. The surgery also marked a milestone for the Pauley—600 heart transplants performed in the transplant program’s history.

“It was crazy, because they put the heart in and it was like a complete change. I haven’t felt like this in a long time,” Gilmore said.

“When I woke up, I was pain-free.”

Coming Home

Days after her surgery, Gilmore sat in a Pauley Heart Center hospital room with her husband and reflected on what she had gone through and the life ahead of her.

“I never had to look much toward the future. Now I have a future to look forward to,” Gilmore said.

She said she lives every day to the fullest, grateful for the time she has, and without any limits or regrets. When she finally returned home 13 days after surgery, her children came rushing out of the house—screaming—ready to hug the mother they’d been missing.

“They also definitely had a lot of questions about the transplant and everything,” Gilmore said. “My daughter even asked if I’d start acting like the person whose heart I received. I explained to her that souls go to heaven—organs don’t. So even though I have that person’s heart, I don’t have their soul. But we pray every day that their soul is resting peacefully. And we thank their family for passing the blessing on and allowing me to continue to be here to raise you.

“It just really feels like all is OK in the world now.”

Top: L to R: Cherron Gilmore with the Heart Transplant Coordinators and Social Worker: Emily Hulburt-Baker, Maureen Flattery, and Megan Maltby /Right: Cherron Gilmore (center) with Cardiothoracic Surgeons DRs. Daniel Tang and Vigneshwar Kasirajan

Middle: Cherron Gilmore (center) with the Mechanical Circulatory Support Coordinators: Katie Hummer, Kat Bull, Kathryn Abernathy and Program Manager Nicole Brassington

Bottom: Cherron Gilmore and husband Geoffrey