Patient recalls UCLA’s first heart-lung-kidney transplant

For years, Wayne Darrington had been coping with amyloidosis, a rare genetic condition that causes an abnormal level of protein to build up in the organs, which in his case led to a progressive deterioration of his lungs and heart.

“I had been doing pretty well. Then, my cardiologist called me at my office in May,” said Darrington, 57, of Inglewood, a married father of two grown sons who works for the Federal Aviation Administration. “He said that my recent lab results showed my creatinine levels were high. This indicated that my heart wasn’t pumping efficiently and it was affecting my kidneys.”

UCLA Health doctors admitted Darrington to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center so they could manage his symptoms while he waited for a heart and lung transplant. While hospitalized, Darrington’s heart rapidly grew weaker. Doctors had to implant a mechanical support system — a short-term solution — to help his heart pump blood to the rest of his body. Even so, his condition worsened and his kidneys began to fail.

A UCLA team determined the best way to save his life would be a rare triple transplant of a donated heart, kidney and lungs. At the time, only six such heart-lung-kidney transplant procedures had been performed previously in the United States, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, the organization that manages the nation's organ transplant system.

“There are few medical conditions that would require triple-organ transplantation, and this patient’s diagnosis warranted that need,” said Dr. Abbas Ardehali, surgical director of the heart and lung transplant program at UCLA. UCLA Health doctors emphasize the importance of organ donation this April during National Donate Life Month, an annual event to help encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors.

For Darrington, even finding a single organ donor would prove challenging. He is nearly 6-foot-3-inches tall, and the donor had to be the right fit with his blood type, height, weight and immune system.

“We had to find a donor where all three organs were in perfect condition,” said Dr. Ali Nsair, medical director of the heart transplant program. “It would definitely take time to find this perfect match.”

A triple organ transplant is an intricate process that begins with evaluation of the donor organs, planning for the surgical transplant procedures and then coordination of the patient’s post-surgery care. As one of the world’s largest solid organ transplant centers that performs single and double organ transplants routinely, UCLA’s multidisciplinary and collaborative programs make it possible to handle very complex cases.

“We also offer advanced techniques to help support patients while they wait for a donor,” Nsair said. “Wayne’s temporary mechanical heart support therapy allowed him to walk and exercise while waiting for this complex transplant, to not be bed-bound. This helped ensure that he was in his best possible condition when it came time for surgery.” After a long three-month wait, a donor was found in late August.

Darrington underwent two separate transplants that started on a Friday and were completed the following day. First, he had a five-hour procedure to transplant the heart and two lungs.

On Saturday, after Darrington’s conditon was stable, he underwent an two-hour kidney transplant surgery performed by Dr. Arnold Chin, an associate professor of urology in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Darrington’s recovery went well and he was discharged from the hospital 30 days later.

“Wayne is a very motivated patient,” Ardehali said. “We are so proud to be able to support patients like him.”

Darrington said his health and spirits are greatly improved and he is back to work and spending time with his family. He expresses gratitude toward the donor family that gave him back his life.

“Organ donors save lives and help people through that gift,” Darrington said. “For that, I’m grateful and thankful.”