How doctors in Indiana pulled off the first heart transplant during COVID-19

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Undergoing a life-saving surgery in a time of such uncertainty as the COVID-19 crisis, is a risk Travis Gault knows all too well.

For the last five years, Gault suffered from a rare heart disease called Cardiac Sarcoidosis in which clusters of white blood cells form most often near the heart muscle.

The sickness made him weak and after years of being in and out of the hospital, doctors finally decided Gault’s best chance at survival was a heart transplant.

With so many unknowns caused by the pandemic, Gault admits he was worried.

“Worried about getting the virus, which would hurt my chances of getting a heart and move me down the list, that’s if I survived it,” Gault said.

The Trafalgar, Indiana resident also said he wondered if a transplant would happen with hospitals overrun with COVID-19 patients.

Doctors at Ascension St. Vincent say their first heart transplant during the pandemic was uncharted territory, but that by April, they saw no other options.

“If Travis did not have a new heart, he likely wouldn’t have survived much longer,” said Dr. Christopher Salerno, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Ascension St. Vincent Heart Center.

Gault was kept in isolation at the hospital’s 86th Street location until he got the news that a heart was available.

“This was just starting. First, we had to get accurate testing on the donor, which was actually a bigger issue than you would anticipate because if you remember back in April, testing was not widely available. Then we had to test Travis,” Dr. Salerno added.

Dr. Salerno also says they had to limit the number of people who went to get the heart.

“They had to bring their own protective gear and most hospitals then had different protocols,” said Dr. Salerno.

He now says the hospital is more efficient at having a team of outside surgeons going to get the hearts and they are continuing to test patients and donors.

“We feel the risk for heart transplants is low and in fact, I think we should have been more aggressive in doing heart transplants earlier in the pandemic,” Dr. Salerno said.

Hindsight is 20/20, but Gault did stay in isolation for longer than is normal post surgery.

“My kidneys were bad, liver was going downhill. I didn’t know this because I wasn’t awake for the first three days,” said Gault.

With only prayers from outside the hospital, the machines in Gault’s room started to fade and day by day, this father of two got stronger.

“I’m wearing a mask, I Lysol everything and just careful with who I talk to,” Gault said.

As for how he feels about being one of the first people to receive a heart transplant during the pandemic, Gault paused and said, “I’m just happy I’m here.”