Wait is over: Woman gets heart, lungs

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 14, 2005

COLUMBUS - A Lawrence County woman got the gift of life Tuesday, and in doing so, made medical history at home and abroad.

Michelle "Shelly" Vulhop, 33, underwent a double lung and heart transplant at Ohio State University Medical Center's Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital.   

"She remains critically ill but is doing as well as we can hope for," lead surgeon Dr. Benjamin Sun said Tuesday evening.

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"It's a very rare procedure," medical center spokeswoman Sherri Kirk said. "It was the first in central Ohio. The statistics that were given to me, in 2002, show there were only 70 of these surgeries performed in the world."

Vulhop had a complex congenital heart defect known as double outlet right ventricle, and developed severe pulmonary hypertension and congestive heart failure.

"She was ill her entire life. By her mid-20s she was terribly sick, but intravenous treatments of a medication called Flolan helped stabilize her enough to get her to the point where she could be listed for the transplant,"

said Dr. Curt Daniels, director of the adolescent/young adult heart disease clinic in the division of cardiovascular medicine, who has treated Vulhop for several years.

Vulhop's mother, Rachel, said an organ transplant was her daughter's only hope to escape the illness she was born with.

''We had no hope. We kept being told, 'Just take her home, enjoy her. Just enjoy her life,''' she said. ''From the day she was born, I had to plan for her funeral.''

Vulhop had been been on a waiting list for donated organs for six years and had been at the top of that list the last two years. The waiting ended Tuesday morning when hospital officials contacted her family and told them to come to Columbus for Shelly's surgery.

"It has been a long wait - six long years. At first, I felt disbelief that it was finally going to happen. We have had so many dry runs," Rachel Vulhop said. "She is going to be a normal, healthy adult for the first time in her life."

A medical team that included six physicians began the operation at 4 p.m. and worked until 10 p.m. to replace Vulhop's lungs and heart with donated organs. The hospital said the organs came from the same person but would not release other information on the donor.

"The doctor said she probably would not have made it another year," said Lana Miller, Vulhop's aunt. "Her heart was so enlarged. It is supposed to be about the size of your fist and they said hers was the size of a cantaloupe."

Miller said physicians have told the family that the next four days is a critical time for Vulhop. If her progress continues, she should be able to go home in two or three weeks and begin an active life, he said.

Since Tuesday, Miller said Vulhop's family and friends have waited for word of the outcome of her surgery and prayed for her.

"I thank everyone for their prayers," Miller said. "We had prayers going out from all over, people putting her on prayer chains. We're thankful."

Why did Vulhop have to wait so long for an organ transplant? 

"It's very common for people to wait a long time for this surgery," Sun said. Heart-lung transplants are rare because organ donations fall well below the demand and conditions requiring replacement of the heart and both lungs are rare, as well, Sun said.

In 2002, the last year for which statistics are available, 71 heart-lung transplants were performed worldwide, 35 in the United States. This is the 12th such operation in Ohio.

Rachel Vulhop said she is thankful that someone chose to be an organ donor and give her daughter a chance at a normal life.

"I thank God for organ donations. Because of someone's unselfishess to donate, my daughter is alive. So are six other people," she said. "No one can know what that feeling is like unless they have children waiting on donations. We are sad that a family had to lose a loved one but we are so thankful that they had the kindness to donate."