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.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby