Life has been a struggle for Indianapolis native Saunquina (pronounced San-quinn-ay) Strayhorn over the last couple of years. He was forced into early retirement in 2007 because of congestive heart failure, and as time passed, the problems became worse.
By early 2010, everyday tasks had become impossible. “I had to calculate things and ask myself, ‘Can I do this or not?’” recalled Strayhorn. “It was difficult to go upstairs. Yard work was… well that was out. I used to play golf and I couldn’t do that anymore.”
However, that all changed June 12, when Strayhorn became one of the first African-Americans to receive a double organ transplant in Indiana. The procedure, which gave him a new heart and kidney, has allowed the 52-year-old to begin getting his life back.
This all happened thanks to the groundbreaking transplant program at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital, which has completed 49 transplants since it started in 2009. However, this was new ground for them. Not only is Strayhorn one of the first Black double organ transplant recipients, he is the first person of any sort to undergo such a procedure at St. Vincent.
Doctors knew that this was hardly a simple operation.
“It’s a fairly unusual thing for a person to get both a heart and kidney at the same time,” said Dr. Christopher Salerno, the physician who performed the heart portion of the transplant on Strayhorn. “When you get a two-organ transplant, it is difficult to find a donor match. It is difficult enough to find one suitable transplant organ, but doing two organs at once can pose several problems.”
In addition to the difficulties of finding a matching donor, such an operation can often be too hard on a patient. “When you have a bad heart and kidney, usually the patient is just too sick to endure a double transplant,” says Dr. Paul Nelson, a staff surgeon at Cleveland’s Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute and the man in charge of transplanting the kidney.
On the rare occasion that a patient does have the opportunity to receive two organs and is healthy enough to undergo surgery, doctors still must proceed with caution. “The heart is done first,” explained Salerno. “When you have to do a double transplant, you want to make sure that the heart is working well, then you do the kidney.”
Doctors walk a fine line in these situations. They must be cautious – a problem with one new organ can pose trouble for the other, and receiving two in one day puts a lot of strain on the body. But they must also act quickly. A donated heart must be transplanted within four hours and a kidney within 12.
Fortunately, Strayhorn reacted well to his new heart. Doctors normally let a patient rest for a while after a heart transplant before beginning another, but Strayhorn’s vital signs were so good that doctors decided to begin the kidney transplant immediately.
All in all, the operation was a success. The quick turnaround from heart to kidney meant that the procedure lasted about eight hours, a remarkably short amount of time for such a massive operation, doctors said.
More importantly, the procedure seemed to work. “He came out of it with relatively normal heart and kidney function,” said Salerno. “I am really pleased with it.”
“Everything was really smooth,” added Strayhorn. “Right now they are saying all of the numbers are great from bloodwork and tests.”
Strayhorn is thrilled to begin to get back to a normal life. “It’s like a second chance,” he said. “I’ll be able to do normal things again. I can see a future, doing things with the family, helping out, traveling.”
He is in intensive rehab therapy now, gradually rebuilding his strength, and is taking recovery one-step at a time. “Right now, I’m concentrating on mobility, just being able to walk again with no limit” he said. “My goal would be to be able to run or eventually play golf again. Once I get there, I can see what else I’ll be able to get into.”
His wife, Beverly, was thankful to the hospital staff and her church, Light of the World Christian Church. “The transplant team is fantastic,” she said. “What I think is great is that St. Vincent is a praying hospital. They had chaplains and priests come by, and when nurses came and told me news, they said, ‘Let’s pray.’ We prayed before surgery, during surgery, and as he came out. We also could not have made it without the support and prayers of our church family, to whom we are so thankful.”
She is also very grateful to the donor, and urges everyone to become one as soon as possible. “People don’t realize how many lives they can touch if they become a donor; all the lives you are helping after you have passed away,” said Beverly. “Someone that has chosen to give their organs will live on in other people’s lives.”