CHICAGO — Seventy percent of donor hearts go unused every year. That means people in need never get the lifesaving organ and people who so generously donated never get the chance to have their gift of life recognized upon their death.

But with a new device, doctors are breaking through the biggest barriers for heart transplantation.

The scene is common in medical stories: a donor heart, on ice, being transported in a simple Igloo cooler.

Dr Jane Wilcox is chief of Heart Failure Treatment and Recovery at Northwestern Medicine.

“We typically have about four hours to get from the time we retrieve organ to implantation into recipient,” she said.

Standard hypothermic preservation limits the organ viability.

Enter the Transmedics Organ Care System.

“You can then put that organ on this ‘heart in a box’ and the box has the donors blood and it perfuses and sort of pumps the heart,” Wilcox said.

The portable box that looks like a Tupperware container instead has high tech capabilities.

“It’s several steps above the Igloo cooler in that it’s really simulating what the body is like in terms of temp, environment,” ,” Wilcox said. “It’s being perfused with blood and not a solution. And so that allows us to have extended time, over double the time we would have for a typical window to perform a transplant.”

The “Heart in the Box” as it’s nicknamed can also give doctors a chance to check the organ in action.

“it’s a very fancy, sophisticated perfusing system,” Wilcox said. “It’s just crazy to see this heart pumping in a box. And you can assess all the characteristics that are important that we consider before doing the transplant.”

All of this opens the door for more donor hearts to be considered an option for transplant. Instead of only choosing hearts from people who are brain dead, the new system resuscitates a stopped heart.

“This ‘heart in a box’ really overcomes those barriers to use more organs,” Wilcox said.

It’s a first for Illinois surgeons at Northwestern Medicine’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.

“So excited, so grateful, so honored,” Wilcox said. “It’s just wonderful to be part of an amazing team and seeing our patient who has waited a long time, who was really excited to be part of this process is icing on the cake.”

Jerry Dorsey, 55, is thrilled to be part of history and thankful for the gift of a heart from the heart. 

“You want that silver lining of when you pass away, for whatever reason, you can provide hope and provide life to another person,” Dorse said. “We all want to feel useful.”

It’s estimated the “heart in a box” device will increase the number of hearts available for transplant by 30 percent.