For 20 years, the heart transplant unit at Sydney's St. Vincent's Hospital has been working hard to figure out a way to transplant a dead heart into a live patient. Today doctors from the team announced their work had paid off: They have successfully completed three transplants using hearts that had stopped beating for 20 minutes—said to be the first such transplants in the world, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Two of the patients are already up and about, while the most recent recipient is still recovering in intensive care. Heart transplants typically rely on organs taken from brain-dead donors whose hearts are still beating; the Herald reports the new development could save 30% more lives. The surgeon who performed the operations says he "kicked the air" after he realized the first surgery had gone well.
The secret to their success lies in cutting-edge technology and the preservation solution in which the nonbeating hearts are immersed. The heart is first placed in a special "heart in a box" machine that warms it up and keeps it beating for about four hours before the transplant operation. The preservation solution, which alone took 12 years to develop, minimizes damage to the organ after it has stopped beating and helps ensure it both survives the surgery and functions in the recipient's body, Sky News reports. Michelle Gribilas, a 57-year-old who had congestive heart failure, tells the Herald that she was "very sick" before having the operation two months ago, and "now I'm a different person altogether. I feel like I'm 40 years old." (This woman wants to live out her heart donor's bucket list.)