PALO ALTO, Calif. -- When 18-year-old James Spencer received his new heart at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford on Saturday, May 6, not only was his life saved by the ultimate gift from another family, but he also became the third young adult in an extremely rare three-day trifecta of heart transplants—including an extraordinarily uncommon double-organ heart and liver transplant.
“It was remarkable,” said David Rosenthal, MD, director of the pediatric heart failure program, “We normally perform around 15 heart transplants a year, and now we did three in three days.”
Thursday, May 3
It all started with a 4:30am phone call in Amanda Sechrest’s dorm at St. Mary’s College. The 20-year-old freshman, a veteran of five open heart surgeries, was on a downward spiral. “She had lost 45 pounds and was sleeping all the time,” said her mother, Lisa. In cardiac failure, Amanda was also suffering from liver dysfunction—a complication of her congenital heart condition. The call delivered news of a lifesaving gift made possible by a tragic death: a donor heart and liver. After nearly 12 hours in the Ford Family Surgery Center, she went to the hospital’s cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) with a new heart, a new liver and a new chance at life.
Friday, May 4
Meanwhile, as Amanda was beginning recovery, 17-year-old William Wylie-Modro was down the hall being prepped for surgery. A Gunn High School senior with aspirations in aerospace engineering, William was on the brink of cardiac arrest at any moment. Hospitalized since early April, William was suffering from disease similar to Amanda’s. On a Friday his family will never forget, the amazing news arrived that a donor heart was available. “I don’t know how much longer he would have survived,” remembers his mother Sheron. William was in surgery just before 6 am, and he also headed to the CVICU 12 hours later with a new heart.
Saturday, May 5
Another day, another heart. Athlete and Giants fan James Spencer, from Susanville, Calif., had been on the sidelines for months. Due to worsening heart failure, on March 25 he needed surgery to place a ventricular assist device while awaiting a possible donor organ. While his parents were shopping for shelves to house the heart support equipment needed for discharge to the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, James got the call. “I was just thinking I could get a little break from being in the hospital,” he remembers. He stayed put, and after a successful surgery ending early Sunday morning, the three-day “gift of life” whirlwind was over.
“On a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, all three surgeries were in the 8 to 10 range,” said cardiothoracic surgeon Olaf Reinhartz, MD, who calmly led all three operations, with liver transplant pioneer Carlos Esquivel, MD, leading the transplant of Amanda’s liver.
The hospital’s Children’s Heart Center is ranked #1 on the West Coast and #5 in the nation. Packard Children’s is the only Bay Area hospital to transplant pediatric hearts. Having performed close to 300 heart transplants, “we’ve built an extraordinary multidisciplinary team with the breadth and depth to handle this kind of challenge before, during, and after surgery,” said pediatric cardiologist Daniel Bernstein, MD.
“It was an unusual three days,” reflected Rosenthal, “and we are thrilled for these young adults. Through it all, one message has been loud and clear: they are forever thankful to the donor families who, in the midst of unbelievable grief, gave someone else a chance to live.”
Amanda and William are now recovering in the CVICU at Packard Children’s, and James is staying close by at the Ronald McDonald House at Stanford.
The families, surgeon and other members of the medical team are available for interviews on Friday, May 25 from 1 pm to 2 pm at Packard Children’s, 725 Welch Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304.