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Renowned heart transplant program celebrates 40-year milestone

In October, Emson Juma became the 900th University of Minnesota Health patient to receive a heart transplant. In doing so, he became part of a 40-year legacy that began in 1978.
In 2017, Emson Juma became the 900th person to receive a heart transplant through University of Minnesota Health. This year, we’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of our first heart transplant—conducted in 1978.

Emson Juma is only 45 years old, but he’s already living what he calls his “second life.”

On October 23, 2017, Juma became the 900th University of Minnesota Health patient to receive a heart transplant. The successful procedure was performed by a care team led by Cardiothoracic Surgeon Ken Liao, MD. Juma had been diagnosed with heart failure when he was only 41; the transplant last year has given him more time to spend with his wife and three young kids.

“This hospital has worked so hard on my behalf to give me that second chance,” he said. “They never got tired. They never gave up. They were always so positive, even when my faith faltered. I can’t thank them enough.”

Juma and his fellow heart transplant recipients are all part of a decades-old legacy at University of Minnesota Health. In 1952, F. John Lewis, MD, performed the world’s first successful open-heart surgery at University of Minnesota Medical Center. In 1958, University of Minnesota doctors performed the world’s first artificial heart valve implant.

This year, University of Minnesota Health is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its first heart transplant —which was conducted in 1978. In the four decades since that groundbreaking procedure, University of Minnesota Health has developed a world-class heart transplant program.

“Patients who received a heart transplant through University of Minnesota Health live an average of three years longer than the national survival benchmark. This is due to the experience and dedication of our heart transplant team,” Liao said.

Forty years of progress

Why has the University of Minnesota Health heart flourished for decades? Cardiologist Cindy Martin, MD, says a commitment from physicians to stay with and grow the program and an innovative attitude have helped propel the program forward.


“It’s the same pioneering spirit that led to the first open-heart surgery here in 1952,” said Martin, who was part of Juma’s heart transplant care team. “We constantly believe that we can do better—that the status quo isn’t good enough.”

Fellow Cardiothoracic Surgeon Rosemary Kelly, MD, echoed that sentiment. University of Minnesota Health has been dedicated to comprehensive heart care for decades, she said.

“We deliver outstanding care, but I think it’s because we got it right at the beginning,” she said. “We were heart surgery and transplant surgery innovators. We didn’t do just one or the other. It’s pretty incredible that two life- and world-changing disciplines both started and grew in Minnesota.”

But the physicians in Minnesota are only half the equation.

Patients are also an incredibly important component of our heart care legacy, Martin said. Without the selfless contributions of people willing to be the first to undergo a new procedure or treatment, the program may never have advanced.

As a teaching institution, the University of Minnesota has helped educate and train physicians who have cared for heart patients around the world. That, too, is the heart program’s legacy, Martin said.

A ‘180-degree’ turnaround

Emson Juma found comfort in the University of Minnesota Health legacy while he waited for news on whether a new heart was coming for him. When it did, he was overjoyed — but he couldn’t help feeling guilty.

“Getting a heart from somebody meant somebody else had to die,” he said. “Being a Christian, I was really, really having trouble with that.”

Juma, a former missionary from Zimbabwe, said he received support from all over the world. Those messages from his friends and family helped him through the physical and emotional challenges of his heart transplant journey.

“My friends helped me realize that God was saving me through somebody else,” he said. “He’s writing a story for me and for the family that gave me the heart—to prove that he can work in different ways. When I began to see that, I began to accept it.”

The transplant has drastically altered Juma’s life. For three years, he battled chronic fatigue and weakness stemming from acute heart failure.

“I have a 2-year-old boy and I could not keep up with him. I couldn’t even run around in the backyard with him,” he said. “Life was getting really, really difficult. I struggled to even tie my own shoes.”

Now, he said, it’s a “complete 180,” as he continues to improve with physical therapy and feel better every day.

The future of heart care

Cindy Martin hopes that advancements will eventually make heart transplants unnecessary.

“I hope in the future, a heart transplant will become a second alternative,” she said. “I believe technology will become more effective. As it does, improved medical devices that assist the heart may lead to a reduction in heart transplants.”

While that future is still far off, University of Minnesota research continues to push the envelope for heart failure treatment, Martin said. Improved care allows many people with heart failure to stay healthier longer. Even more heartening: the University of Minnesota Medical School will produce pioneering, forward-thinking physicians trained to save lives across Minnesota and around the world.

“We have an amazing legacy at the University of Minnesota but—let’s not forget—the University of Minnesota has helped to create amazing legacies at a lot of other places as well,” she said. “It’s not just what we’ve done here, it’s what we’ve done to move the field forward worldwide.”