Skip to main content
day in the life

The Crucial Hours of a Heart Transplant

Follow one woman’s journey to a new heart.

An elderly woman is lying in a hospital bed. Her medical team of 4 people dressed in blue surgical scrubs is wheeling her through the hallway of a hospital.
Yvonne gets a new heart–and a new chance at life. Photo credit: Dave Pokress/The Well
A glass building sits against a blue sky with white clouds. In front of the building is a grey, concrete swoop with a Northwell Health Logo and a sign that reads North Shore University Hospital.

At North Shore University Hospital, we’ve reimagined health care

Yvonne Fleming is a vibrant 63-year-old Brooklyn resident who loves to ride horses and spend time with her family. But one day several months ago, Yvonne experienced a massive heart attack that destroyed 70 percent of her heart. “The doctor told me that most people who have an attack of that nature usually don’t survive, but I came out fighting,” she says.

Yvonne was diagnosed with ischemic cardiomyopathy, a type of advanced heart failure that is caused by blocked arteries. She spent the next three months in and out of Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan to drain the water that continuously filled her lungs—a direct result of her heart struggling to pump blood and fluids through the body. Yvonne’s doctors told her a heart transplant was her best option.

She didn’t hesitate. She wanted to live. And so the journey to heart transplantation began.

An elderly woman wearing a grey hat and hospital gown lies in a hospital bed. She is smiling and giving a thumbs up. Her hand is attached to an IV with bandages.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

On a Saturday night, Yvonne received the greatest news of her life—a match had been found. She would receive a new heart.

While the prospect of open heart surgery is daunting, Yvonne stays positive. A spiritual person, Yvonne’s smile lights up the halls of the hospital as she waits for her new heart to arrive.

“I have a lot of angels watching over me,” she says. “I have family and friends who have been praying for me and I can feel it coming my way. I have so much support. I feel so special and blessed.”

A woman wears a blue baseball hat and red sweatshirt and looks off to the side.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Yvonne’s friends, whom she likens to sisters and affectionately calls her “Queens,” join her at the hospital. Kesha fights to push her own fears aside so she can be strong for Yvonne; she knows they have many difficult and exhausting hours ahead of them. 

One man is smiling and wearing glasses and a blue jacket. Another man is half in the frame and also wears a blue jacket.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Dr. Syed Hussain, lead procurement surgeon, is responsible for recovering the donated heart and bringing it to Yvonne, who is being prepped for surgery. He will also serve as first assistant surgeon for the transplant.

A helicopter sits on a helipad. It is blue and white and says Northwell Health and SkyHealth on the side. The propeller is spinning.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Once Dr. Hussain procures the new heart, he gets on a helicopter and brings it to Yvonne. Dr. Hussain—and the heart—touch down at Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital at North Shore University Hospital. Time is of the essence when transporting an organ for transplantation; a heart can only survive out of a body for four hours. The SkyHealth helicopter offers a fast and safe route to and from medical facilities in the northeast region. 

Several people wheel a gurney out of an elevator. On the gurney sits a white cooler with a sticker that says heart on it. They are in the hallway of a hospital.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

The heart is carefully taken from the helipad to the operating room. Prior to transplantation, the team checks the organ to make sure it is in perfect condition for surgery.

A woman in a blue baseball hat and red sweatshirt kisses a woman sitting in a hospital bed on the forehead. A man in surgical scrubs stands to the side and looks on.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Meanwhile, Yvonne is prepped for surgery. Her family wishes her luck and says their temporary goodbyes.

A smiling woman is wheeled on a hospital gurnery through a hallway. There is a monitor to the side and several people push her from the top of the bed. One person is holding a white box that reads RUSH in big red letters.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

All smiles, Yvonne is wheeled to the operating room.

A smiling elderly woman in a hospital bed gives a thumbs up.
Photo credit: Dave Pokress/The Well

After months of uncertainty, Yvonne is relieved that the wait is over and is ready to start a new chapter in her life.

There are two images side by side. On the left is a man in surgical scrubs and a surgical cap. On the left is a smiling woman with glasses and a white lab coat.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Dr. Brian Lima (left) is the surgical director of Heart Transplantation and Yvonne’s primary implanting physician. He will be attaching Yvonne’s new heart. “This is a big deal for the hospital, Long Island, and most of all—for Yvonne,” he says.

Dr. Gerin Stevens (right) is the medical director of the Heart Failure and Transplant Program and Yvonne’s cardiologist. Regarding Yvonne’s optimistic attitude, Dr. Stevens says, “It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s why we do this. The best message we get to deliver to a patient is that we have a suitable heart. It changes their life—and that’s what makes this all worth it.”

A surgeon with white surgical gloves holds a human heart in his hands in an operating room.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Dr. Gerin Stevens

Yvonne’s old heart is removed. It will be sent to the pathology lab to be examined in the hopes of answering questions about Yvonne’s condition, the cause(s) of her heart attack, the extent of the damage, and whether or not Yvonne has any additional conditions her doctors need to know about.

A human heart sits in a plastic bin inside of a metal bin in an operating room. A pair of hands is performing a medical technique on the heart. There is surgical equipment off to the side on a table.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Dr. Gerin Stevens

The new heart is ready for insertion. The surgery takes only 70 minutes.

A woman lies in a hospital bed attached to many medical machines. She clutches a red heart shaped pillow. A doctor wearing surgical scrubs and a yellow gown looks at a monitor off to the side.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Yvonne is followed closely by her care team, including Dr. Lima. Moving forward, Yvonne will have to adhere to a strict medication regimen and make frequent visits to Dr. Stevens’ office for regular follow-up care as they watch for signs of organ rejection, infection and coronary artery disease.

This is an image of a red, heart shaped pillow with an illustration of a human heart on the front. There is also writing on the pillow in black ink.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

This heart-shaped pillow is not just a decorative keepsake. Yvonne uses it to apply pressure against her chest when she coughs or sneezes to make her more comfortable.

A woman sits in a hospital chair wearing a hospital gown and a grey cap. She has a white sheet wrapped around her. To the left stands a man in a button down shirt, tie and white lab coat. To the right stands a woman with glasses and a white lab coat.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

With Dr. Lima and Dr. Stevens by her side, Yvonne feels hopeful. She’s forever thankful that someone thought to sign the back of their license and become an organ donor. “I’m sorry that someone had to lose their life in order for me to keep mine. But now I’m going to sign the back of my own license and let my family know that if something ever happens and I can prolong another person’s life with my own donation, they can have it.”

A woman wearing a dark grey shirt, black cap, and light grey sweatshirt and sweatpants sits on a hospital bed. She is signing papers and there is medical equipment on the bed next to her. A woman wearing a yellow hospital surgical gown, blue gloves and a blue surgical mask stands beside her and touches the sitting woman’s shoulder.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Twenty eight days later, Yvonne feels strong and looks great. As she signs her discharge papers, Yvonne is given a few last minute instructions and reassurance as she prepares to leave.

A woman in a black cap, red winter coat and surgical mask is wheeled in a wheelchair by a nurse in blue hospital scrubs. Behind them are many hospital workers. They are in a hospital hallway. The woman with the red coat is waving.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Yvonne’s surgery was a milestone for the staff at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital. And they’ve grown fond of their happy-go-lucky patient. Yvonne leads the pack of well-wishers through the hallway as she is wheeled out.

This is a group photo of a large hospital staff. They are all smiling. In the middle of the group is a woman in a black cap, red winter coat and surgical mask covering her mouth. She sits in a wheelchair.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Yvonne is an inspiration to many people. Before she leaves, they pose for pictures and say their goodbyes.

A woman in a black cap and red winter coat with a fur lined hood sits in a car. She has a red pillow against her chest and she gives the camera a thumbs up.
Photo credit: Lee Weissman/The Well

Yvonne knows there will be challenges throughout her recovery, but she plans to face them as she always does, with grace, strength and gratitude.

Next Steps and Useful Resources

Do you want to see more articles on a similar topic?

Thanks for your input!

Published April 3rd, 2018
A glass building sits against a blue sky with white clouds. In front of the building is a grey, concrete swoop with a Northwell Health Logo and a sign that reads North Shore University Hospital.

At North Shore University Hospital, we’ve reimagined health care