University of Minnesota Medical School celebrates 40 years of heart transplants

The University of Minnesota Medical School is celebrating 40 years since the state’s first heart transplant. 

In the last four decades, the program has done more than 900 heart transplants – seven already just this year.  

Research at the U of M continues to be on the cutting edge with attention worldwide. Inside the heart lab, U of M grad students carefully study a beating swine heart. Through a website, the heart is being analyzed by more students worldwide. 

“Professors from around the world are using these images and it’s really the only lab where you can see the functional anatomy inside,” said U of M Professor of Surgery Paul Iaizzo.

Across the hall, a library of human hearts offers students, doctors and anyone from any company the chance to study donated hearts for free. 

“We were gifted these organs from the donors and their families via LifeSource; therefore, we gift everything back to everyone for their knowledge,” said Iaizzo.

The knowledge builds upon the legendary doctors and the medical team that participated in the state’s first heart transplant, which happened nearly 10 years after the first in the world.

“I hope years from now you don’t need people like me,” said Medical Director of the Heart Failure Program and U of M Cardiologist Dr. Cindy Martin. “I hope there are no more heart failure cardiologists in the world in the coming decades because I hope we will be able to prevent that and get to that point in the disease process.”

Not only is this one of the longest running heart transplant programs, it also continues to be one of the most successful.

“The average survival in this program is about three years longer than the national average, so we are very proud of our work,” said Dr. Kenneth Liao, a heart transplant surgeon.

Nearly 18 years ago, John Kaiyalethe, also known as Pastor KK John, received his donated heart from a 19-year-old woman. He’s longed to thank her, but will never forget the moment he realized his heart transplant surgery worked. 

“I’m alive! You know, I knew they were going to take my old heart away, but I have known about these kind of things, but when it’s you going through it you are not sure you are going to wake up,” said Pastor KK John.

This Saturday, a 40th anniversary celebration party is bringing together medical staff along with the transplant recipients and donors’ family.