Baptist Hospital, 1980s
The atmosphere was calm inside the Baptist Hospital operating room where Dr. Nazih Zuhdi and his medical team prepared for the state's first heart transplant.
But outside, an evening thunderstorm gathered strength, a menace to the milestone in the making.
Dr. David Vanhooser, a second-year medical resident charged with retrieving the donor heart from Dalton, Ga., was buckling into a Leer jet at Wiley Post Airport.
“The pilot said we had to take off now or never,” Vanhooser said. “We literally outran the clouds.”
With only a four-hour window to transplantation, the crew couldn't afford setbacks. In Georgia, the county sheriff took them on a fast but harrowing car ride to the hospital where Vanhooser carefully removed the heart from a 14-year-old girl killed in a car accident and placed it in a sterile bag.
Vanhooser hoped the fist-sized organ would soon beat again.
Back in Oklahoma City, the skies had cleared. The retrieval team and heart boarded an ambulance back to Baptist Hospital.
But miles from its destination, the vehicle stalled, lifeless in the middle of Northwest Expressway.
Another ambulance was summoned quickly, and Vanhooser brought his ice chest-cased treasure into the operating room where 45-year-old Nancy Rogers lay, her body hooked to a machine that would pump her blood and breathe for her during surgery.
Like a carefully-tuned orchestra, Zuhdi and his team took their places. Although Zuhdi never had seen or assisted a heart transplant before, he said he was confident.
A nurse helps Dr. Nazih Zuhdi into surgical gloves before the first heart transplant in Oklahoma-Photo Provided
“Do you really know what you are doing?” asked Dr. Allen Greer, his surgical partner.
“You are going to be surprised,” Zuhdi responded.
Few could doubt Zuhdi's skills as a legendary surgeon and inventor.
And he radiated a surety and confidence that inspired everyone to their finest.
“Dr. Zuhdi was one of the best technical surgeons in the world,” Vanhooser said. “He could sew a heart in with his eyes closed.”
Still, the pressure to succeed was palpable.
“On my part, there was anxiety that everything must be right,” said Dr. Scott Samara, a kidney transplant surgeon who assisted in the surgery. “A lot was put on that heart. The first transplant had to go well, in every area.”
Zuhdi connected the heart and opened the aortic clamp. The organ filled with blood.
A hush fell over the room as the heart began to warm.
Would it beat?
Thump thump. Thump thump. The organ contracted. The blood flowed.
Smiles erupted behind surgical masks. Oklahoma's first heart transplantation was successful.
“There was a giddy feeling. This is happening. This is real,” Samara said.
Rogers, recovering in the hospital's intensive care unit, would go from critical to fair condition within four days. A few days later she told reporters she was eager to go home. “It was a little scary to go through, but I kept my faith in the Lord. God has taken over.”
Clockwise from upper left: Dr. Nazih Zuhdi holds the heart of a 14-year-old Georgia girl who died in a car accident; Dr. Zuhdi performs transplant surgery on Nancy rogers; Dr. Zuhdi and a nurse debribrillate the heart of Nancy Rogers; Dr. Zuhdi with first heart transplant recipient Nancy Rogers, 45, Oklahoma City, at left, and second heart transplant recipient Robert Fortson.-bottom left photo by David McDaniel, The Oklahoman. All other photos provided
Rogers left the hospital 25 days after her surgery. She returned three weeks later with cytomegalovirus,an opportunistic infection that a healthy immune system could fight off. Roger's immune system was weak from her surgery and had been battered from years of chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer.
She died 54 days after receiving her transplant. While the infection had ravaged nearly all of her body's systems, “her heart was beating strong, even to the end,” Zuhdi told reporters.
Zuhdi was seeking the first candidate for heart transplantation when he found Rogers, a cancer survivor whose heart was terminally damaged by the chemotherapy drug Adriamycin.Rogers was a critically-ill patient at Mercy Hospital, where Zuhdi turned when Baptist doctors declined to refer him patients for transplantation.
“Heart transplantation was so strange to Oklahoma,” Zuhdi said. “They thought I was a nut. They thought I needed to be evaluated.”
Rogers needed no convincing. Her heart was weak, but her spirit was strong, Zuhdi said. She was undaunted by surgery and bolstered by her strong faith.
When she left the hospital after the pioneering surgery, “She was very happy,” Zuhdi said. “She was elated.”
Nancy Rogers was the first, but more than 430 heart transplants have taken place at what is now known as the Nazih Zuhdi Transplantation Center at Integris Baptist Medical Center.
Her willingness and Zuhdi's perseverance placed Baptist among an elite group of hospitals doing organ transplantation. Baptist was the first transplant center not affiliated with a university.
Today, heart transplant patients may live many decades, thanks to new generations of anti-rejection and anti-infection drugs.
Zuhdi, 85, said he may see the day when heart transplants are obsolete, replaced by artificial hearts.
Zuhdi is retired from patient care but not from the beating heart of innovation. He's working with others on a prototype of a mechanical heart.
“The heart is a pump,” he said. “So far, we do not have a fantastic pump.”
“Great things are happening,” he said of his design. “I'm making progress.”
Kent Rogers said his wife's heart transplant was an answered prayer.
Doctors told Nancy Rogers she only had months to live. Her heart had been terminally damaged by a chemotherapy drug that helped cure her cancer.
Nancy Segars Rogers, the 45-year-old woman who is Oklahoma's first heart transplant patient, is visited at Baptist Medical Center by her daughter, Nancian, and surgeon Dr. Nazih Zuhdi.-photo provided
"It was the only option," Kent Rogers said of the 1985 heart transplant, the first in Oklahoma.
Nancy was confident in Dr. Nazih Zuhdi's care and in her Christian faith, he said.
In the recovery room after the successful surgery, Kent held Nancy's hand as she emerged from anesthesia. "She couldn't talk, but she knew it was me," he said.
Twenty-five days later, Nancy was released from the hospital, eager to spread her faith and talk to other potential transplant recipients.
"It was like getting a second chance at life," he said. "She was going to tackle the world."
But Nancy did not stay home long. After three weeks, she was readmitted with cytomegalovirus, an opportunistic infection that her weakened immune system could not defeat. She died 54 days after receiving her transplant.
Kent said Nancy had no regrets about becoming the state's first heart transplant recipient.
"She took a chance on it and became a pioneer," he said.
Oklahoma's first heart transplant in 1985 was among many medical firsts by Dr. Nazih Zuhdi, a pioneer in cardiovascular surgery and innovation.
Zuhdi was born in Beirut, Lebanon, son of a Syrian ophthalmologist father and Turkish mother. He came to Oklahoma in 1957, after moving to America and studying the operation of heart-lung machines and heart surgery under the masters of the time.
At Mercy Hospital, Zuhdi developed the principles of total intentional hemodilution, the priming of a heart-lung machine without any blood.
Unveiled in 1960, the discovery changed the future of all cardiac surgery. Open heart surgery was now possible without blood transfusions and live donors. Hemodilution became standard practice worldwide.
“That was the biggest contribution that changed the world,” Zuhdi said. “That opened the gate to all heart surgeries and transplants.”
Dr. Christiaan Barnard used the technique when performing the world's first heart transplant in 1967 in South Africa, saying it protected the heart cells from damage during the surgery.
Zuhdi also was co-developer of an artificial bypass heart, a precursor of the artificial bypass hearts used today. He was the first to use a stabilized pig valve, rather than an artificial one, when replacing damaged heart valves.
Within years of Oklahoma's first heart transplant in 1985, Zuhdi blazed more medical trails with the state's first piggyback heart transplant, heart-lung transplant, single-lung transplant and double-lung transplant.
In 1988, Zuhdi and Dr. Dimitri Novitzky implanted both left and right ventricular assist devices in a patient as a bridge to transplantation.
The heart transplant center received Medicare certification in 1989 — another huge step. In 1998, Zuhdi campaigned successfully to change Oklahoma law so that organs donated in the state would be first offered to Oklahomans in need of transplant.
A year later, Zuhdi retired and the Oklahoma Transplantation Center he founded in 1984 was renamed the Nazih Zuhdi Transplantation Center.
Zuhdi's many achievements are chronicled in the Heritage Room at Integris, and in the Oklahoma Heritage Association museum. The heritage association inducted Zuhdi into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1994, and a decade later published a lengthy biography “The Life of Nazih Zuhdi: Uncharted Voyage of a Heart,” authored by Brooks Barr. A replica of the heart-lung machine he created is part of an exhibit about Zuhdi at the Oklahoma History Center.
Zuhdi and Annette, his wife of 40 years, live in Nichols Hills.