Until man can successfully move an intact, working brain from one person's skull to another, there probably is no medical procedure more impressive or mystifying than a heart transplant. And when it comes to said procedure, few doctors in the world surpass Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center's Abbas Ardehali.
As director of the UCLA Heart and Lung Transplant Program, Ardehali regularly transplants hearts, mends valves and redoes existing procedures, such as coronary bypasses. If those operations don't sound difficult enough, he also is a pioneer in the field of double lung transplants.
"It is always remarkable to take part in such a significant moment in the patient's life," says the Iranian-born Ardehali, "and there is no better feeling than seeing a patient's condition improve and to see them feel uplifted."
Medical technology is continually enhanced, and unfortunately it is needed more than ever. "Our society is getting less healthy as a whole," Ardehali says. "Obesity among adults and children is considered an epidemic, which contributes directly to the individual's heart health. Medical technology is always progressing, but preventive measures must also be undertaken to improve these statistics."
While transplants are a miracle solution, there are factors that stand in the way — chiefly, geography. The supply of suitable heart donors is not as large as the number of patients awaiting heart transplants, and often, when there is a good match, the heart is too far away.
This is where Ardehali's current work comes in. He is developing something called the Organ Care System or, more colloquially, "heart in a box," for TransMedics. As the principal investigator on the project, he's quite enthusiastic.
The new system will hold a still-beating heart until it can be transplanted. The traditional method is to put a non-beating heart in a cooler "for approximately five to six hours of travel time, whereas using this new technology may prolong the travel time substantially," Ardehali says.
Because the organ can travel farther and reach a broader range of recipients, the donor pool expands. Ardehali also hopes that keeping the heart warm and perfused — supplied with blood — will improve recipient organ-rejection statistics over time.
Even with his busy schedule, Ardehali makes time to build bridges to forward-thinking elements in his native country. "The medical community in Iran constantly strive to improve their medical programs and patient care. Communication is allowed; we are currently hosting a visiting surgeon from Iran, who will be observing our operating room procedures so that he can learn and take these new techniques back to Iran."
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As if that weren't enough, Ardehali also is working on a "lung in a box" device. The world now can breathe easier.