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North Carolina newborn receives first ever partial heart transplant

Owen Monroe awake, five days post-operation.
Monroe family
Duke University
Owen Monroe awake, five days post-operation.

Duke Health said surgeons performed the world’s first partial heart transplant on a 17-day-old infant.

Partial heart surgery means taking living tissue from a donated heart and attaching it to the patient’s heart. This was the best option for the infant, Owen Monroe, because he was born with the arteries of his heart fused together, meaning blood couldn’t flow properly.

Doctors didn’t think Owen would survive the four-to-six-month wait for a full heart transplant. The other traditional option is to use arteries from a cadaver, but the cadaver tissue doesn’t grow with the child — meaning Owen would’ve had to undergo multiple risky surgeries to replace the valves as he grew.

Doctor Joseph Turek said, “one of the problems with replacing valves with cadaver arteries and valves is that they just don’t last...they won’t grow with the child and as you grow up, your heart needs to grow with you as well.”

Turek and doctor Michael Carboni said the partial transplant avoided this problem — at least in theory. The surgery had been researched, but never performed.

Carboni said this kind of operation allows them to use parts of a donated heart that couldn’t otherwise be used, meaning the wait time was far shorter.

This type of surgery could also benefit dozens of other kinds of heart conditions, according to Turek. He said the next steps to making the procedure more common will be figuring out what dosage of anti-rejection medication works for patients with partial transplants, and the logistics involved in this kind of transplant.

The surgery was performed successfully April 22 and Owen has been doing well since. His parents Nick and Taylor Monroe, who are from Leland, said the process was full of extreme lows and highs. Taylor said the best moments are just watching Owen hit milestones like trying rice cereal for the first time.

“That we could be a small part of potentially changing history, it’s not something that’s easily comprehensible,” Taylor said. “We’re just a mom and dad who wanted to have a baby, and here we are.”

Grace Vitaglione is a multimedia journalist, recently graduated from American University. I’m attracted to issues of inequity and my reporting has spanned racial disparities in healthcare, immigration detention and college culture. In the past, I’ve investigated ICE detainee deaths at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, worked on an award-winning investigative podcast and produced student-led video stories.