Health Headlines: First-of-its-kind heart and thymus surgery proves successful

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Published: Oct. 28, 2022 at 8:33 AM CDT
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Lake Charles, LA (KPLC) - While many have never heard of a “thymus” the small gland is essential to your immune system. But a first-of-its-kind, combination heart transplant and thymus tissue implantation is credited with saving the life of an 18-month-old who’s now a living medical miracle.

Little Easton Sinnamon came into the world in 2021 with a broken heart, having six defects in all, that were too severe for doctors to fix.

Easton’s mother, Kaitlyn, says, “If we didn’t go the transplant route, he wouldn’t be here today.”

The bad news kept piling on as doctors found that Easton’s immune system also wasn’t working.

Dr. Joseph W. Turek is the Chief Pediatric Cardiac Surgeon at Duke University who led the team helping Easton and explains, “We found out that he didn’t have T-cells. T-cells are something that are produced by the thymus. They helped to fight infection.”

So, Dr. Turek and his team proposed an investigational procedure that had been pioneered at Duke University but had never been performed in humans before. It was a combination heart transplant and implantation of cultured thymus tissue that they believed would reduce the need for anti-rejection drugs.

Kaitlyn says it wasn’t a difficult choice to make since the implantation posed little risk to their son, ”If you do it and it works, you’re changing how transplants are done worldwide.”

When Easton turned six months old, a donor heart became available and surgeons were able to send thymus tissue from that same donor to a lab for processing.

The heart transplant came first according to Dr. Turek, “We went back to the operating room two weeks later, and we did the cultured thymic tissue implantation.”

Easton’s doctors and family noticed the difference immediately.

Kaitlyn says, “He was no longer this kind of bluish, grayish color, not getting enough oxygen.”

Little Easton left Duke Hospital after seven months, finally growing stronger at home. Now, he’s not only celebrating his first birthday, but also another one-year milestone.

”We call it his heart birthday, his ‘heart-versary’. August 6th was when he received his transplant.”

The double procedure was cleared by the FDA under an expanded access application.

Kaitlyn says doctors have already started reducing one of his anti-rejection medications as they initially hoped they would be able to. This is especially important as anti-rejection medications can be toxic to organs, especially the kidneys.