Triple-organ transplant recipient: ‘I was just thrilled there was a chance’

The numbers are mind-boggling: Six transplanted organs, a combined 37 hours of surgery, a total of about three dozen doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists in the operating room.

But perhaps just a handful of words in the quiet, croaking voice of 29-year-old Sarah McPharlin summed up the historic feat best: “I was just thrilled that there was a chance.”

On Friday, McPharlin, an occupational therapist from Michigan, and Daru Smith, a South Sider and also 29, were recovering from first-of-its kind, marathon surgeries at the University of Chicago Medicine that involved each patient receiving a transplanted heart, liver and kidney.

Heart transplant surgeon Valluvan Jeevanandam, MD, chief of cardiac surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine, shows triple transplant patient Sarah McPharlin photos. | Provided UChicago Medicine

“We never in our wildest dreams imagined both would take place at virtually the same time,” said Dr. John Fung, co-director of UChicago Medicine Transplantation Institute. “Pulling this off can feel like trying to perform a high-wire ballet in the middle of running a marathon. But we were always confident in our patients as well as our team’s abilities.”

Individually, organ transplants aren’t rare, but U. of C. officials say it’s the first time an American hospital has performed two triple-organ transplants within a single year. In this case, the surgeries happened back to back — from Dec. 19 to 21.

Smith found himself in need of the life-saving surgery after being diagnosed five years ago with a rare condition that causes clusters of inflammatory cells to form in organ tissues.

Smith, a truck driver, said he banished fear about his fragile condition not long after his diagnosis.

“All that was left was determination and a will to live,” Smith said.

Smith said, his 3-year-old son is eager for dad to come home from the hospital.

“I want to cherish this,” Smith said, massaging his chest and stomach. “I don’t want nothing to happen to this.”

Daru Smith gets his vitals taken by University of Chicago Medicine nurse Kimberly Wieszchowski. | Provided UChicago Medicine

For McPharlin it was a second, perhaps a third chance.

She received her first heart transplant when she was 12 years old, after contracting a rare inflammatory heart condition called giant cell myocarditis. The heart eventually began to fail. A fluid buildup damaged her liver and kidneys.

Doctors at several hospitals said they couldn’t perform the needed triple transplant. Surgeons in Chicago gave her good news.

McPharlin, her chin trembling as she reflected on the surge of energy she now feels, said she’s looking forward to “living every day like it’s your last and taking care of the organs.”

“First thing I want to do is take a shower,” she said. “You take the simplest things for granted.”

 

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