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Sharp Health News

Making history, healing hearts

Oct. 13, 2015

30 year anniversary SMH heart transplant

Dr. Walter Dembitsky, Dr. Peter Hoagland, Dr. Rob Adamson, and Dr. Brian Jaski have remained on Sharp Memorial’s heart transplant team since its inception three decades ago.

Arquides "Arquie" Felix desperately needed a new heart. He'd spent 11 weeks inside the intensive care unit at Sharp Memorial Hospital, too sick to go outside. He missed his son's high school graduation. He was unable to take his wife to dinner to celebrate their 21st wedding anniversary.

"Every day I would wake up and say, 'God, let this be the day'," Felix says about his hospitalization.

On Sept. 2, 2015, the call finally came. On that day, Felix became the 399th person to receive a new heart at the hospital.

This year marks 30 years since Sharp Memorial became the first hospital in San Diego — and only the fourth in California — to perform a heart transplant. Today, Sharp Memorial is recognized as a global leader in heart transplantation for its innovation and success, and has one of the country's highest one-year survival rates.

The historic surgery took place Oct. 11, 1985, after two years of preparation. The hospital invested in new operating room tools, built a special post-operative recovery area and recruited a team of heart specialists trained at Stanford and Harvard universities.

The recipient, Gary Grissom, was a 48-year-old retired electrical engineer and married father of two, who had been given only a few months to live. He received the heart of a 21-year-old sailor who died in a motorcycle accident. Grissom walked out of the hospital three weeks later. He lived for another 10 years.

"There was a lot of excitement at the time of the surgery, but we knew we were under a microscope," says Dr. Brian Jaski, a Sharp Memorial-affiliated cardiologist and heart failure specialist, who has been part of the heart transplant team since its inception.

Sharp Memorial's transplant program was a natural extension of the hospital's cardiovascular services, which were considered pioneering even back then. The hospital had performed San Diego's first open-heart surgery in 1958 and installed the West Coast's first electronic pacemaker in 1961.

However, most heart transplants at that time were being performed by university medical centers, not small, community hospitals like Sharp.

"In the context of that time, it was a momentous thing for this hospital to do," says Dr. Rob Adamson, a Sharp Memorial-affiliated cardiac surgeon, who has also been part of the program since the late 1980s.
Since then, Sharp heart transplant doctors have shared their expertise at medical meetings throughout the world and have published more than 100 research articles in distinguished medical journals.

The hospital's history of pioneering research in mechanical hearts, including left ventricular assist devices (LVADs), has made it a place of hope for patients experiencing heart failure.

In April 2015, Sharp became the first hospital on the West Coast - and only the sixth in the country — to implant the HeartMate® III Left Ventricular Assist System as part of a nationwide clinical trial.

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