Heart Transplant Team Doesn't Skip a Beat During COVID

Allison Addis reconnects with her nurse, Ben Thomas
Allison Addis updates transplant coordinators on how she’s feeling post-transplant  before traveling home to Abbeyville, SC. story by Leslie Cantu, photo by Lauren Hooker

The call came at 3 a.m. Allison Addis was getting a new heart. The rest of South Carolina had spent the month of March using its best hurricane prep know-how, attempting to prepare for something that hadn’t occurred in generations – a global pandemic. Addis had spent the month following the advice of the MUSC Health Heart Transplant team in anticipation of one day getting a new heart, as well as spending time with her ailing father, who died March 14. She never expected the call to come so soon. In three weeks, the 55-year-old Addis went from being listed for a heart transplant to receiving news she was about to have a new heart.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic meant things were a little different than usual at hospitals across the state. Newly implemented visitor restrictions meant that Addis would be alone. No one from her large, close-knit family would be allowed at her bedside. Instead, family members waited out the surgery at a nearby hotel.

Heart transplant coordinator Benjamin Thomas, R.N., recognized the burden these restrictions placed on both patients and families. He went to the hotel to explain the entire process to the family and answer their questions.

“Imagine our surprise when Ben Thomas, the nurse coordinator, visited us at the hotel,” said Addis’s sister, Ashley Wargula. “He sat with us in the lobby for two hours and walked us through everything. It really impressed us with how he went that extra mile to make us feel comfortable.”

That was just the start of the many ways the doctors, nurses and therapists stepped in to make this transplant journey as stress-free as possible.

Addis first met with Ryan Tedford, M.D., in October 2019. Tedford is an advanced heart failure and transplant cardiologist and medical director of cardiac transplantation at MUSC Health. He’s one of eight such specialized cardiologists, with a ninth slated to join the team in August, who work with three heart surgeons, with two more set to join in late summer. Addis first met with Ryan Tedford, M.D., in October 2019. 

Despite the pandemic, the transplant  team has remained busy.  “Symptomatic cardiac disease doesn’t wait,” said Marc R. Katz, M.D., MPH, chief of cardiothoracic surgery. “In Fiscal Year 2020, the team performed 40 adult heart transplants, compared to 26 in FY2019.”  Katz said there have been a few patients who have been low risk enough that procedures could be postponed, but for the most part, it’s been business as usual for the heart team.

Katz said there have been a few patients who have been low risk enough that procedures could be postponed, but for the most part, it’s been business as usual for the heart team.The team has plenty of precautions in place, including rapid testing of patients for coronavirus before surgery and testing of all donor hearts before transplantation. These are in addition to the precautions that MUSC Health as a whole has implemented, like increased telehealth visits and a universal masking policy. 

They were all so remarkable,” Addis said. “Not only did they help me heal medically, they helped me heal emotionally.” “They understood the added stress of not having family by my side and did so many things on a daily basis to help get me through the recovery,” Addis said.