The Stunning Comeback of a Top Transplant Surgeon Who Got a New Heart at His Own Hospital
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.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.