Las Cruces, N.M., resident Julia Bendixen, 61, was celebrating her 23rd wedding anniversary on May 19 when she began suffering from shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. Her husband drove her to the emergency department at Mountain View Regional Medical Center, where it was discovered she had experienced a heart attack.
Doctors admitted Bendixen for what surgeons believed would be a routine four-vessel coronary bypass graft procedure. But after the procedure, when the surgical team was ready to take her off of the heart/lung machine, they could not get her heart to re-start. She had a “stone heart,” a dreaded and rare complication that almost always is fatal unless the patient receives a heart transplant.
Her physicians began calling around for help—first all over New Mexico and Texas, before finally reaching University of Arizona heart surgeons Christy Smith, MD, and Jess Thompson, MD.
Drs. Smith and Thompson determined that Bendixen’s only option to survive was to be placed on an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) machine until a heart transplant could be performed. ECMO is an advanced technology available at The University of Arizona Medical Center that serves as a temporary life support system for patients who have heart or lung failure or both. The device pumps blood through an artificial membrane, adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, performing the work of the lungs and heart and preventing the organs and the patient from dying. The machine can support a patient for days to weeks.
This meant the UAMC heart surgery team would have to fly the ECMO machine to Las Cruces, go directly into the operating room to transition Bendixen to the machine, and transport her to Tucson to begin the process of finding her a heart.
“No other facility in the Southwest, and very few medical centers in the nation, have the capability or would attempt to transport a patient on an ECMO machine,” said Dr. Thompson, assistant professor in the UA Department of Surgery Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery. “The situation was grim; they called us and we decided to try to help.”
UAMC has a well-established, successful heart-transplant program with the expertise and technology to provide survival rates that exceed the national average. Also, managing a patient on ECMO requires highly specialized skills; the machine must be monitored 24 hours a day and requires an organized effort by a team of experts, including cardiac surgeons, cardiologists, pulmonologists, certified perfusion technologists, anesthetists, critical care specialists and nursing staff.
The UAMC team flew to Las Cruces and successfully transported Bendixen to Tucson, a complicated and high-risk process. The next step was to find her a donor heart as soon as possible.
Then something miraculous happened. While Bendixen was on the ECMO machine, and the transplant team began the search for a heart, they realized after just 48 hours her heart was beginning to recover on its own. “To our amazement, her heart recovered completely. We took her off of ECMO after a week and closed up her chest,” Dr. Thompson said.
The ECMO device ended up buying her heart the time it needed to recover and a transplant no longer was necessary.
Bendixen was discharged from UAMC June 23. She is home in Las Cruces fully recovered and back to work as a quality assurance technician.
“The University of Arizona has a long history of providing care outside Southern Arizona through its nationally renowned Arizona Telemedicine Program. We are committed to making available our expertise and the same high-quality surgical care to the region as well as Southern Arizona,” said Rainer W.G. Gruessner, MD, department chairman.
“This is an amazing story,” said Dr. Thompson. “We literally swooped in from the sky and were able to resuscitate the patient back to life.”