A change of heart

By Fondation du Children,

After a 267- day wait, Vincent Lambert begins a new life.

The past 10 months have been nothing short of a whirlwind ride for 15- year-old Vincent Lambert and his family. From the moment the teenager was hospitalized at The Montreal Children’s Hospital in early September 2011, his lengthy wait for a much-needed heart transplant has seen its share of ups and downs.

Vincent’s story, however, begins long before last fall. It all started when Vincent was only three months old. The newborn’s heart was affected by a virus. The resulting myocarditis infection that significantly weakened his heart. His long-time cardiologist at The Montreal Children’s Hospital, Dr. Luc Jutras, has followed him closely ever since, and for many years, Vincent remained an energetic child with nothing more than mild symptoms. By the spring of 2011, however, his health took a turn for the worst.

Fatigued, weak and unable to keep up with his usual activities, it became evident that Vincent’s damaged heart muscle was giving out. His heart was losing strength, and could no longer pump blood throughout his body. He was in full-blown heart failure.

Vincent was rushed to The Montreal Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) from his home in Laprairie in early September. Little did Vincent and his family know that his hospital room, measuring just 20 by 15 by 20 ft., was to become their new home for the next 40 weeks.

The team of health professionals in the PICU rapidly met with the cardiac surgeons and cardiologists after his admission.The decision to put Vincent on a mechanical heart, called a Berlin heart, was made, and surgery was scheduled to implant the device by a surgical team led by Dr. Suzanne Vobecky. This computer-operated machine, programmed to beat artificially and pump his blood at precisely 100 beats per minute, was the size of a small shopping cart. Connected to his body via a thin tube, the Berlin heart would be a bridge to an eventual heart transplant: an operation that would allow Vincent to eventually return to his life as an active teenager.

Vincent’s recovery from this initial surgery, however, didn’t go smoothly. There were many complications, including bleeding, blood clots, and kidney failure. The first couple of months were quite touch-and-go.

Thankfully, after a rough start, Vincent started to make slow and steady gains. In early 2012, after dropping to 26 kg, he began to put on weight. He started walking around the hospital and lifting weights in the physiotherapy room, with his trusty mechanical heart always in tow. By spring however, the wait began to feel excruciatingly long.

Back in the spring, Vincent summed up his life at The Children’s. “Living in a hospital for so long, the time goes by really slowly. Playing video games and chatting with my friends on Facebook passes the time, but it’s not anything like being able to play with my dog whenever I want to, or going to La Ronde with my friends.”

The news he’d been waiting for

One morning, after nearly 10 months of waiting, the news that Vincent, his family,  and his entire medical team–in fact, the entire staff of The Montreal Children’s Hospital–had been  waiting for finally came. During the week of June 15th, 2012 Vincent and his family members were told that a compatible heart had become available from an anonymous donor.

“It was truly a surreal moment for us,” says Vincent’s mom, Lyne Chabot, about finding out that a heart was on its way for her son. “On the one hand, we felt such relief and joy that our son would be getting his second chance at life, and on the other, we felt incredible sadness for the family who had lost a loved one.  We were overwhelmed with appreciation for their brave decision to allow their family member’s organs to be donated.”

Dr. Renzo Cecere, director of the McGill University Health Centre Mechanical Heart Assist Program and surgical director of the Heart Failure and Heart Transplant Program led the transplant process. “In order to complete a heart transplant, a series of three surgeries must be performed,” he explains. “Once we learned of the donation, I performed the initial operation of harvesting the donor heart. Once this operation was completed, the donated heart was transported to The Montreal Children’s Hospital, where Vincent was prepped and readied for the delicate two-part surgery, which would complete the transplant operation.”

The first part of Vincent’s transplant operation was performed by Dr. Christo Tchervenkov, Division Head of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery at The Montreal Children’s Hospital. “It involved opening his chest for the 5th time, dissecting through the dense scar tissue, cannulating for cardiopulmonary bypass, removing his damaged heart, which was actually still inside his chest, despite the fact that he was connected to a Berlin heart for the previous ten months, and finally removing the cannulas of the Berlin heart” he explains. “Dr. Cecere then performed the second part of the surgery to implant the donor heart so that Vincent no longer needed to rely on a machine to pump his blood; his new heart could take over the job.”

Thanks to the outstanding level of care he received from the interdisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, perfusionists and allied health professionals in the PICU in the months leading up to his surgery and the few days that followed, Vincent has made an astonishingly quick recovery from his transplant operation. On June 26, 2012, just  over two weeks after receiving his donor heart, Vincent made a long-anticipated trip home from the hospital, and spent his first night in his own bed with his beloved dog Max by his side.

Vincent is candid when talking about his experience, “It was a long wait and sometimes, it was really difficult to not know how long I would remain in hospital,” he says. “Now that the past 10 months are behind me, I am excited about being able to go outside, spend time with my friends, and eventually go back to school. I will always be grateful for the decision my heart donor and his or her family made. They gave me the greatest gift I could have ever asked for: my future.”

© 2017 The Montreal
Children’s Hospital Foundation

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