Having spent my working life as a transplant surgeon, it is the ultimate irony that I have now become a heart transplant patient. I knew this was a possibility since 1987, when I was 27 years old and I received a phone call from my sister-in-law telling me that my 35-year-old brother, Rich, had just died suddenly while water skiing.
Living from one heartbeat to the next I knew I had to get it right and nail my life—and in that regard my disease was a blessing.
After his autopsy, dots were connected and it was clear that the mysterious heart disease my father had died from when I was 15 years old was genetic. I was evaluated and it was clear that I too had inherited cardiomyopathy, a progressive weakening condition of the heart muscle that often leads to dangerous rhythm disturbances and sudden death. My doctors urged me to have a newly developed device called an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) surgically placed in my abdomen and chest to monitor and shock my heart back into normal rhythm should I have a sudden cardiac arrest.
They also told me I was the first surgeon in the world to undergo an ICD implant and that having one of these devices would not be compatible with the life of a surgeon and I should change careers to something less rigorous. With the support of a mentor and armed with what the British refer to as my "bloody-mindedness," I refused to give up this dream of becoming a transplant surgeon. I completed my surgical training and embarked on my career.
What followed were periods of stability punctuated by near-death experiences. I had a family, was productive in my work, and got on with life, knowing that this was a fragile situation that could turn on its head in a moment. In a way, it made my decisions about how to spend my time and focus my efforts more deliberate and purposeful. Living from one heartbeat to the next I knew I had to get it right and nail my life—and in that regard my disease was a blessing.
In 2017 while pursuing my passion for the outdoors in a remote part of Patagonia, I collapsed from bacterial pneumonia and sepsis. Unknowingly, I had brought in my lungs one of those super-bugs that you read about from the hospital where I worked. Several days into the trip, the bacteria entered my blood stream and brought me as close to death as a human can get.
I lay for nearly 3 weeks in a coma on a stretcher in a tiny hospital in Argentina, septic and in cardiogenic shock before stabilizing enough to be evaced to NYU Langone Hospital, where I was on staff. I awoke helpless, unable to walk, talk, or swallow food or drink. It was a long shot but I managed to recover completely from this episode; after 3 months, I returned to work and the operating room. My heart rebounded, but never back to where it had been.
Then, on the eve of my mother's funeral, I arrested while watching a Broadway show, and this time my ICD failed to revive me. There was prolonged CPR that broke my ribs and spine and a final shock that recaptured my heart. It was literally a show stopper and I awoke to a standing ovation from the New York theatre audience who were stunned by my modern recreation of the biblical story of Lazarus, or for the more hip among them, my real-life rendition of the resurrection of Jon Snow at the end of season 5 of Game of Thrones.
Against the advice of my doctors, I attended my mom's funeral and again tried to regain some sense of normalcy. We discussed a transplant at this point but, believe it or not, there is such a scarcity of organs I was not yet "sick enough" to get enough priority to receive a heart. I had more surgery to supercharge my ICD so it would be more likely to save my life the next time -- and there would be a next time, I knew.
As a transplant surgeon, I have been involved in some important innovations to expand the number of organs available for transplantation.
Months later in Matera, Italy, where I was attending a medical meeting, I developed what is referred to as ventricular tachycardia storm. I had 4 cardiac arrests over a 3-hour period. With the first one, I fell on to a stone floor and split my forehead open. When I arrived at the small hospital it seemed like Patagonia all over again. One of the first people I met was a Catholic priest who gave me the Last Rights.
I knew now was the moment and so with the help of one of my colleagues who was at the meeting with me and the compassion of the Italian doctors who supplied my friend with resuscitation medications and left my IV in place, I signed out of the hospital against medical advice and boarded a commercial flight back to New York. I was admitted to the NYU intensive care unit and received a heart transplant 3 weeks later.
Now, what I haven't said is that as a transplant surgeon, I have been involved in some important innovations to expand the number of organs available for transplantation. I came to NYU in 2016 to start a new Transplant Institute which included inaugurating a heart transplant program. We hired heart transplant surgeons, cardiologists, and put together a team that unbeknownst to me at the time, would save my life a year later.
It gets even more interesting. One of the innovations that I had been involved in from its inception in the 1990s was using organs from donors at risk for transmitting viruses like HIV and Hepatitis C (Hep C). We popularized new ways to detect these viruses in donors and ensure that the risk was minimized as much as possible so patients in need of a life-saving transplant could utilize these organs.
When the opioid crisis hit hard about four years ago, there were suddenly a lot of potential donors who were IV drug users and 25 percent of them were known to be infected with Hep C (which is spread by needles). In 2018, 49,000 people died in the U.S. from drug overdoses. There were many more donors with Hep C than potential recipients who had previously been exposed to Hep C, and so more than half of these otherwise perfectly good organs were being discarded. At the same time, a new class of drugs was being tested that could cure Hep C.
I was at Johns Hopkins at the time and our team developed a protocol for using these Hep C positive organs for Hep C negative recipients who were willing to take them, even knowing that they were likely to become infected with the virus. We would then treat them after the transplant with this new class of drugs and in all likelihood, cure them. I brought this protocol with me to NYU.
When my own time came, I accepted a Hep C heart from a donor who overdosed on heroin. I became infected with Hep C and it was then eliminated from my body with 2 months of anti-viral therapy. All along this unlikely journey, I was seemingly making decisions that would converge upon that moment in time when I would arise to catch the heart that was meant for me.
Dr. Montgomery with his wife Denyce Graves, September 2019.
Today, I am almost exactly one year post-transplant, back to work, operating, traveling, enjoying the outdoors, and giving lectures. My heart disease is gone; gone when my heart was removed. Gone also is my ICD. I am no longer at risk for a sudden cardiac death. I traded all that for the life of a transplant patient, which has its own set of challenges, but I clearly traded up. It is cliché, I know, but I enjoy every moment of every day. It is a miracle I am still here.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.