Patient gets a heart transplant in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic

Medical Watch

On the Medical Watch — he got a heart in the midst of the pandemic. Organ donations have decreased during the COVID-19 crisis, but for one local patient, the timing and the transplant were a perfect match.

“You don’t think you’re going to get a call at 3:15 in the afternoon,” Roy Roe, a heart transplant patient, said.

It was the phone call Roe had been waiting for. The 60-year-old was getting a new heart in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — a scenario he had already discussed with his doctors.

“They wanted to know where I was at. How was I feeling about the situation with COVID-19? Did I feel safe? If a heart was available would you be willing to accept it? And I said, ‘Yeh, I’m ready to go,’” Roe said.

So, on May 15, he made the trip to Northwestern — a buddy and fellow transplant patient drove him to the hospital.

“As we rode into the city, I‘m talking to someone who had gone through the transplant experience. It was almost like the pregame, so I was ready to go when I got there,” Roe said.

Roe’s road to a heart transplant began about four years ago when he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and cardiac sarcoidosis — a condition that attacked his heart and damaged the organ.

“It’s kind of a bad luck diagnosis, and it can also go under the radar. A lot of times people aren’t thinking about sarcoid, and so they miss it for a while, and by the time you pick it up, a lot of scaring can happen in the organs like the heart, and that’s what happened with him,” Dr. Jonathan Rich, Northwestern Medicine transplant cardiologist, said.

Roe spent about two years on an lvad — a portable, mechanical heart pump that helped him function better. But his transplant changed his life.  

“To go from the pump to a heart is like night and day. It’s unbelievable. I didn’t know how bad I was feeling until I feel good,” Roe said.

“He’s sitting up in the chair talking to us the following day telling us how good he felt,” Dr. Duc Thinh Pham, Northwestern  Medicine cardic surgeon, said.

Rich and Pham cared for Roe before and after his transplant. During the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, organ donations were down 20% to 30% at the hospital.

“There was some apprehension among a lot of patients waiting for transplants coming into a hospital scenario for fear of being infected, which was unfortunately not correct, but it worked out for Roy. I don’t know exactly why other recipients turned down that heart, but it worked out for him,” Pham said.

Roe’s physical recovery has been remarkable.

“I’ve been walking like crazy. It’s been awesome,” Roe

But his thoughts are heavy for his donor’s family.

“Right away when people hear you’re getting a transplant it’s congratulations, congratulations. And I had a hard time receiving that because there’s a donor involved, and that donor passed. And even two or three years leading up to this I’ve been thinking about the donor, praying for the donor, praying for the donor’s family, because without the donor I wouldn’t be here,” Roe said.

Roe is now back at home continuing his recovery — he says he plans to write his donor’s family a letter once a year passes and he’s allowed to reach out.

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