On the afternoon of April 25, 2018, Colin Tucker felt as though a railroad spike was being shoved through his chest.
Tucker was taken to his local hospital, where doctors found four blockages in his heart. He was having a heart attack, and 99 percent of the main artery that supplies blood to the largest portion of his heart was blocked. After months of unsuccessful treatments, procedures and medications, Tucker was sent to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he was placed on the transplant list and received a ventricular assist device to pump blood from the chambers of his heart to the rest of his body.
Just over two years later, Tucker became the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute’s first heart transplant recipient from a hepatitis C-positive donor. It is part of a new organ transplant program available at UAB where doctors safely transplant organs from hepatitis C-positive donors into uninfected recipients and cure the hepatitis C with antiviral therapy. The program originally began with liver and kidney transplants but has now expanded to include heart and lung transplants.
“With so many people in need of an organ transplant, this program allows us to use perfectly functioning organs to offer our patients improved quality of life,” said José Tallaj, M.D., medical director of UAB’s Heart Transplant Program. “Now that the treatment for hepatitis C is simple, extremely effective and needed for only a short period of time, organs from donors with hepatitis C are a great option for patients like Mr. Tucker, who had been waiting for a long time to get an organ.”
Organ size, donor location and medical urgency are a few of the factors that UNOS considers to determine heart allocation. Tucker, who is 6 feet, 6 inches tall, performed well with the VAD and was able to participate in a 10K and 12K while on the device. Tucker’s height and great performance on the device led to a 28-month waiting period for a heart.
“When I got the VAD, I had to make a personal choice to not let it keep me from living my life,” Tucker said. “I live in a coastal town and had to give up some of the hobbies I loved, like fishing, swimming, boating and even some traveling, because of the VAD. This was difficult; but I was not sure when a heart would become available, so I adjusted to this new way of life the best I could.”
Tucker’s wait finally came to an end when he received a call from UAB on Oct. 28, 2020, and was asked whether he would be willing to receive an organ from a hepatitis C-positive donor. He agreed and received his new heart the next day.
“When I received the call about the heart, they told me it came from a hepatitis C donor and explained to me how my risk of getting hepatitis C was extremely low,” Tucker said. “It was no longer a question of whether or not it was safe; it was a question of how soon I could get it. This was the only call I had received about a donor heart in two years, and here I am now, almost a year later, and doing fantastic.”
Patients who agree to receive a hepatitis C-positive organ begin their antiviral medications the day of their transplant surgery and remain on this medication for eight to 12 weeks. After the medication is complete, they will attend routine checkups.
Each UAB transplant patient has responded to the therapy since the program began in 2019.
“Hepatitis C is a curable disease, and the antiviral therapy has proved to be more than 95 percent effective in preventing potential infection,” Tallaj said. “This program is safe, it is effective, and it might decrease someone’s waiting time because it opens the donor pool to a greater number of people. We want to ensure that all of our patients experience a good quality of life, and this program is a way to do that.”From high blood pressure to heart transplants, UAB’s Cardiovascular Institute provides a full range of services for patients. Learn more by visiting uabmedicine.org/heart.