Three heart transplants in a row — back-to-back-to-back.
In sports, that’s a triple play, a hat trick, a trifecta.
In medicine, it’s three lives saved.
At UF Health Shands Hospital, those three lives are Gary Marz, 48; Lora Mills, 35; and Micah Bowman, who just turned 1.
Their hearts, their situations, their waits and their transplant operations were all different. But in late summer, when donor hearts became available for each of them within a 48-hour period, their lives merged when the UF Health Shands Transplant Center and UF Health Congenital Heart Center teams worked around the clock to make sure each received lifesaving surgery.
Combined, Marz, Mills and Bowman spent almost 750 days in the hospital, waiting for their transplants. They got to know each other during their wait.
“When donor hearts become available, we have to make ourselves available to the best of our ability,” said Mark Bleiweis, M.D., UF College of Medicine transplant surgeon and director and principal cardiothoracic surgeon for the UF Health Congenital Heart Center, who was the lead surgeon during each operation.
“It was the perfect storm,” said Marz, who had been waiting just 11 days and was the first of the three to receive a transplant. “It’s just amazing how things fell into place.”
Bleiweis said although it’s not unusual for his team to perform three heart surgeries in a row, it was a career first to complete three successive transplants.
“None of these transplants was straightforward,” Bleiweis said. “They were all re-operations with significant anatomic considerations and technical issues to work out. But it didn’t deter us from taking all of this on.”
Marz said he felt guilty going first, knowing Mills had been waiting 398 days longer than he had. “He was happy he was getting to go, but so sad for his friend who had waited so long,” Bleiweis said. “I just told him miracles do happen, but I couldn’t tell him anything else.”
Mills said Marz’s daughter came to see her. “She was like, ‘Are you mad? He was telling them to give the heart to you. He didn’t want me to come tell you,’” Mills said.
Mills found out shortly after that visit that a heart was available for her, too. “I saw him as he was being wheeled down the hall on the way to the operating room. I said, ‘I’m so happy for you! And guess what — I got my heart, too. I’m next.’”
Bleiweis said he slept and ate when he was able. No easy feat when one patient is going to his hospital room to begin recovery while the next patient is coming into the OR.
“When I went to tell Gary he was getting his transplant, I’d already gotten wind there was a heart for Lora. I knew I’d be doing those transplants back-to-back, but I also knew they’d been waiting,” Bleiweis said. “During Lora’s operation, the team started talking to me about the heart for Micah.”
Gini Bowman, Micah’s mother, said she saw Bleiweis in the UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital Pediatric Cardiac ICU between transplants. She knew Micah was next. “I looked at him and said, ‘I need you to go home and go to bed.’ He laughed and told me, ‘I’m coming to see you and then I’m going home.’”
Bleiweis downplays the rigorous schedule this series of transplants required. He said his physical training regimen and good diet are keys to keeping up with his demanding, fast-paced career. He also said his mentors taught him that you have to make sacrifices.
“I’m just focused on taking care of my patients. I know it has to be done and I just do it,” Bleiweis said. “You’re in the moment; you’re involved in a lifesaving event. There’s not much greater incentive than that.
“It’s a huge team effort. We have the nursing expertise and ancillary support to take care of really complex patients. These kinds of treatments are what UF Health is all about. It’s what makes this place so special, and it’s why I’m here.”
“Our lives have been changed by those people,” she said. “All the goodness in society is grouped together in that unit. They show you there is good. By the things they do, the way they go about things, they show that love.”