DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — A five-month-old boy from Harnett County is the first human to receive a partial heart transplant.

The procedure was performed by a team at Duke Health.

“This procedure potentially solves the problem of a growing valve,” said Joseph Turek, M.D., Ph.D., Duke’s chief of pediatric cardiac surgery, who led the landmark surgery. “If we can eliminate the need for multiple open-heart surgeries every time a child outgrows an old valve, we could be extending the life of that child by potentially decades or more,” Turek said.

Owen Monroe was born on April 5, 2022. His parents, Taylor and Nick Monroe, knew Owen would have a congenital heart defect and it was confirmed during the pregnancy.

“I remember getting in the truck after that ultrasound. I think we just cried,” said Nick Monroe. 

But it wasn’t until Owen was born that they learned standard surgeries wouldn’t work.

“It wasn’t so much of the bad news that rocked us as much as, he’s not going to make it without this heart transplant,” said Taylor Monroe. 

Owen’s condition is called truncus arteriosus, which means two main heart arteries are fused together that affects blood flow. And in Owen’s case, one artery had a leaky valve.

“That’s when we really started having the discussion about what’s the best path forward for him,” said Turek. “One path forward is a traditional heart transplant but children Owen’s age, they wait a good four to six months to get a heart transplant and he didn’t have that long, with the valve leaking so much. He was not going to make it.”

Another path was cadaver arteries, but doctors say Owen was too small, weighing only five pounds.

“We needed to figure out how we could put valves in that would grow with him just so we wouldn’t need to do repeated operations which are really risky,” Turek said. 

Turek and a team at Duke suggested a partial heart transplant for Owen.

The procedure allows living arteries and valves from a donated heart to be fused onto a patient’s existing heart. It’s never been done before.

“I was at the point where I said just do whatever you have to do to save him,” said Taylor Monroe. 

And 17 days after Owen’s birth, there was a donor match. Owen underwent the procedure becoming the first human to receive a partial heart transplant. Today, Owen is healthy and doing well.

“He’s doing phenomenal,” said Taylor Monroe. “If you just met him on the street, you would have no idea this went down.”

She says Owen is hitting all his developmental milestones

“He’s starting to roll over,” she said. “They’re blown away by how well he’s done. He’s had his first taste of rice cereal so that’s very exciting.”

Turek calls this procedure a “profound development in pediatric heart surgery.”

“Owen is a perfect example of how this process could benefit children in the future and I’m grateful for Nick and Taylor for trusting us,” he said. 

“Everyone asked us, how did you decide to do this, and I just keep saying, he was in the best hands,” Taylor Monroe said.

Duke doctors say research continues but they believe partial heart transplantation or living valve replacement will become a common operation down the road.