PITTSBURGH — A young girl from Texas, 6-year-old Stormie Jones, was the recipient of the world’s first operation to transplant both the heart and the liver at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day, 1984.
The two transplant teams were headed by Dr. Thomas Starzl and Dr. Henry Bahnson.
Blonde and freckle-faced, Jones waited 44 days for the operation. Her donor organs came from a 4-year-old New York girl who was killed in a traffic accident days earlier. Without the operation Jones would have died from the damage done to both organs.
She had a rare disease with extraordinarily high cholesterol levels, called hypercholesterolemia, and had her first heart attack at the age of 5, followed by a second one two months later. Prior to her heart transplant, she had already undergone two triple coronary bypass surgeries and a heart valve replacement. The double transplant was her only hope for survival.
Dr. Starzl said the surgery was of vital importance, “not only for the child but because of the amount of information obtained from it.”
Within a month of the operation, Jones had returned to a relatively normal life. Her diet was primarily vegetarian, but she was allowed the occasional hamburger or hot dog.
Over the years, she made many trips back to Pittsburgh for follow-up care. Well-wishers would often give her spending money, which she spent on get-well gifts for other hospitalized children. Family and friends described her as always looking out for other people.
Jones was outdoorsy and active but never comfortable with all the attention her transplants brought her. At one point, eager to get on with her life, she threatened to kick a physician unless he discharged her.
After a bout with hepatitis in 1989, Jones’ liver was so irreparably damaged that she received a second liver transplant at Children’s Hospital.
Her historic Valentine’s Day surgery gained Jones years of life, but she was flown back to Children’s Hospital after developing flu-like symptoms in 1990. Her condition deteriorated and she died at the age of 13 after having another heart attack.
Doctors suspected that the sore throat and low-grade fever were indicative of an infection that attacked her transplanted heart and triggered the attack.
Dr. Starzl and Dr. Bahnson were longtime colleagues and friends who, together, helped establish Pittsburgh as a center for organ transplantation surgery and research. They were such close friends that Dr. Bahnson served as Dr. Starzl’s best man at his wedding in 1954.
Dr. Bahnson was born in North Carolina and studied medicine at Harvard Medical School. Following graduation, he completed his residency at John Hopkins in Baltimore, where he met Dr. Starzl. At his funeral, Dr. Starzl said of Dr. Bahnson, “He was the best surgeon there (John Hopkins), maybe the best surgeon they had ever produced. He was a great hero then, just like always.”
Dr. Bahnson specialized in heart surgery and became the Chairman of Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School in 1963. Striving to build the small program into a premier center for surgery and research, Dr. Bahnson aggressively recruited some of the best doctors in the world. One of his biggest successes was bringing Dr. Starzl to Pittsburgh in 1981.
“He was the very soul of our institution, and one of the country’s most important medical leaders,” said Dr. Arthur Levine, the dean of the School of Medicine. “Without Hank, this school never would have achieved its current international status.”
Dr. Starzl had been working at the University of Colorado, where he pioneered using cyclosporine as an antirejection drug and was among the first in the United States to perform a heart transplant. Dr. Bahnson was close behind, performing Pennsylvania’s first heart transplant in 1968.
Doctors from around the world came to Pittsburgh to learn from both men. It is estimated that about 90% of all transplant centers worldwide are headed by surgeons who trained under Dr. Starzl or under Starzl-trained surgeons.
Dr. Bahnson retired in 1987 and died in 2003 at the age of 82.
Dr. Starzl died in his sleep in Oakland in 2017. He was 90 years old.