Ethiel F Newark Beth Israel Heart and Lung Transplant Success Story

Following a heart and lung transplant at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, Ethiel Fontalvo said, “I can walk — I do three miles now — and I can climb up the stairs. Before, I was out of breath after 12 steps.”

The Advanced Heart Failure Treatment and Transplant team at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center performed a rare and complex heart and lung transplant which allows Ethiel Fontalvo to live a normal life.

”I grew up sick and never knew what it was like to be normal,” says Ethiel Fontalvo.

Ethiel was born with a heart defect that led to Eisenmenger syndrome, a condition that causes blood to circulate abnormally in the heart and lungs and ultimately damages the lungs’ blood vessels.

At the time, his family was living in a rural area of Colombia where medical resources were limited. “When I was born, my parents were told there was no hope for me,” Ethiel says.

Ethiel’s parents did not abandon him, but he lived a sheltered life, able to go to school but unable to play with other children. “I just had to sit there and watch other kids run around,” he says.

When Ethiel was 9 years old, his family moved to the U.S. They consulted doctors about an operation that would repair Ethiel’s heart, but when told the success rate was low they decided not to risk it.

Ethiel graduated school and started working. His major form of recreation was going on scary rides at amusement parks. Rebelling against his limitations, he began to do risky things, such as smoking and drinking. “That brought a lot of complications,” he admits. “My heart started getting worse, became enlarged.”

By the time Ethiel was in his 40s, he was having trouble breathing and was feeling fatigued even with 24-hour supplemental oxygen. He had to stop work and go on disability.

In and out of the hospital for months at a time, he was running out of options.

A Rare Procedure

By the time Ethiel checked into Newark Beth Israel Medical Center (NBI) in April 2019, a heart-lung transplant was his only chance for survival. Neither a heart transplant nor a lung transplant alone would be enough to keep him alive.

“Ethiel was very sick,” says Jesus Gomez-Abraham, MD, Ethiel’s cardiothoracic surgeon. “In addition to the congenital heart condition and pulmonary artery hypertension, he had many other medical conditions.”

Yet when Dr. Gomez-Abraham met Ethiel for the first time, what impressed him most was his patient’s optimism. “He was amazing, a ball of hope,” says Dr. Gomez-Abraham. “He was happy, even smiling, though he was very sick.”

Jesus A. Gomez-Abraham, MD
Jesus A.
Gomez-Abraham, MD
Heart-lung transplants are rare, with only about 100 performed in the U.S. each year. Donors are hard to find and the two-organ transplant requires many factors to come together in a short window of time. NBI is the only medical center in New Jersey qualified to perform the procedure.

Ethiel was put on the transplant waiting list with the notation that the both heart and lungs needed to come from the same donor and had to come as one unit attached to the bottom part of the trachea. The organs also had to be the right size to fit Ethiel’s chest cavity. Moreover, they had to be available from a donor fairly close by, because donor organs have to be placed in the recipient’s body within just a few hours.

On August 3, 2019, Ethiel celebrated his 55th birthday while still a patient at NBI. Then on August 9, the medical center received the news that a donor heart and lungs were available.

Immediate Action

With little time to spare, multiple teams got to work. “A heart transplant team, a lung transplant team, and the surgeon check the organs’ dimensions,” explains Dr. Gomez-Abraham. “We also evaluate and test organ function.”

Simultaneously, a surgical team prepared Ethiel, so that when the donor organs arrived he was prepped, anesthetized and ready to receive them.

Ethiel’s chest was opened and he was put on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, which pumped his blood and kept him alive while his own heart and lungs were carefully removed. Then the new organs were placed into his chest cavity, and the four main vascular connections were sewn together.

Once the new organs were in place, drugs were administered to stimulate the new heart and bring blood to the lungs. That moment, says Dr. Gomez-Abraham, “is one of the wonders, part of the joy and happiness that we as transplant surgeons can observe—when we see organs regain functionality and give life to our patients again.”

Afterward, Ethiel stayed in the hospital for about a month doing pulmonary rehabilitation and physical therapy.

Now, more than a year later, Ethiel describes the surgery as a miracle.

“I can walk—I do three miles now—and I can climb up the stairs. Before, I was out of breath after 12 steps.”

He follows a healthy diet, takes medications to prevent organ rejection, goes for regular follow-up visits with his doctors and has been extremely careful to avoid getting infected with COVID-19.

But once the pandemic is over, Ethiel says, he’s looking forward to returning to his beloved amusement parks and trying out all the new rides.

Learn more about heart care and transplant services and lung transplants at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, contact us for an appointment or call (888) 724-7123.