DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Organ donation is often called the gift of life and a North Carolina baby was recently able to both give and receive that precious gift.
Duke Health cardiac surgeons performed the state’s first domino partial heart transplant, saving two babies’ lives. The procedure builds on the techniques of the groundbreaking partial heart transplant, which Duke surgeons became the first in the world to perform in 2022.
As a newborn, Asher Hobby seemed healthy. Then, at just 18 days old, Asher’s father, Drew Hobby, said his son stopped eating normally. The pediatrician sent the family to their local hospital in Greensboro.
From there, they were rushed to intensive care at Duke.
“He was not doing well,” recalled Hobby. “We didn’t know if he was going to make it through the night.”
The family eventually learned that Asher would need a heart transplant. The news brought complex emotions.
“Why us?” Hobby questioned. “How do you pray for a heart knowing that some other family is going to lose their child to do that?”
Along with that difficult reality came an unexpected opportunity. While Asher’s heart muscle was damaged beyond repair, the valves inside his heart were healthy. Meanwhile, another baby with a different type of heart defect had a healthy heart muscle, but needed new valves.
Dr. Joseph Turek, the chief of pediatric cardiac surgery at Duke Health, said Asher’s family was asked if they’d be interested in donating Asher’s healthy valves to another baby, once he received a new heart.
“We call them ‘domino partial heart transplants,'” Turek explained.
According to Turek, the domino partial heart transplant technique is based on an innovation, first performed at Duke, called the partial heart transplant, in which babies receive heart valves that grow with them.
“This partial heart transplant innovation has really been one of the most rewarding things in my entire career,” he said. “To see how it’s helping a group of children, who in the past did not have much of a future, and allowing them to be able to grow up and live a normal life and have normal valves and not have to undergo several operations in order to fix their valves.”
With fewer hearts available than babies who need hearts or valves, Turek says the domino procedure is the next step in saving lives. He and his team at Duke performed the state’s first domino partial heart transplant.
Asher Hobby, received an entire new heart, and then donated the healthy valves from his old heart to another baby.
“It’s really a wonderful setup where two children can benefit from one initial gift,” Turek noted. “When you find a new way in which you can get growing valves from children who aren’t going to be using their old hearts anyway, it pretty much doubles the supply of valves that are going to be out there.”
Asher’s parents didn’t hesitate to donate his valves. “A part of his very, very damaged heart still went to help another kid,” said Hobby. “That was the most one of the most amazing things.”
According to Turek, the baby who received Asher’s valves is doing well.
“That patient is doing fabulously,” he said. “The valves are growing. They work very well.”
Asher is thriving too. After leaving Duke Hospital in a celebration of bubbles and applause, he is adjusting to life at home with his parents and big brother and sister. He returns to Duke for follow-up appointments and scans to monitor his new heart.
“He’s doing really well. He’s a tough little guy,” said his dad.
Dr. Turek hopes these types of transplants will become more common.
“That’s kind of my mission now, is to make sure we can spread this idea and make it such that other institutions can continue to do more of these and make it available for kids across the country and hopefully, eventually, across the world,” he said.
Asher’s family is grateful for their donor, their doctors, and the opportunity to help another child.
“Why us? Maybe it was just supposed to be us,” Drew Hobby said, hoping Asher’s story will inspire other families facing difficult diagnoses. “There’s a light at the other side of such a tough, unimaginable situation.”