Published on February 01, 2016

DR. MIKE SCHATZLEIN: A Pioneer with Heart

Mediscoop, February 2016

Before Dr. Mike Schatzlein was President & CEO of St. Vincent’s HealthCare and Senior Vice President and Ministry Market Executive of Ascension Health, before he was the President & CEO of Saint Thomas Health in Nashville or a Group Ministry Operating Executive, Dr. Schatzlein was a heart transplant surgeon. But he didn’t start his medical career as one.

“When I went through my training, heart transplants were in a hiatus everywhere except Stanford because rejection was too big of a problem,” he said. But Dr. Norman Shumway, considered to be the father of heart transplantation, kept working until doctors found a drug— cyclosporine—that helped fight the rejection, and that’s when transplants in other places began again. It is also when Dr. Schatzlein and his partners knew it was time to develop a heart transplant program at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “We were doing it because patients had to go to the city where they were going to do your transplant and wait for a donor heart,” he said. “We didn’t find many people in northern Indiana who wanted to live in an apartment in Pittsburgh for the last weeks of their life in hopes that they’d get a heart.” But Dr. Schatzlein and his team didn’t rush into this endeavor. They took their time.

“At that time, there was a lot of pressure. I’d never done a heart transplant. We had done a tremendous amount of preparation – over a year’s worth,” he said. “We trained at Michigan, where they had started doing [heart transplants] again, and actually one of my partners went out and spent a month watching Dr. Shumway at Stanford, so we had done a lot of preparation.”

On July 20th, 1985, after all the research and preparation, it was time. This would be the first heart transplant in the region. That patient was discharged from the hospital in 10 days, and lead a normal life for several years. While every transplant case is different and each one has an impact, it was Dr. Schatzlein’s second case that he found particularly impactful.

“He was in very serious difficulty with heart failure and was going to die any minute,” Dr. Schatzlein explained. “And the donor was a 14-year-old boy who was rendered brain dead in a moped accident. And, you know, I really wanted a heart for [the heart failure patient], but boy it’s just…I had my own kids and thinking about that 14-year-old was tough.”

But there’s much more to this young man’s story.

“Two people got kidneys, somebody got a liver, somebody got corneas,” Dr. Schatzlein said. “The family actually almost always takes a measure of comfort in the fact that so many people have been helped. It doesn’t obviously fix things, but it makes a horrible situation a little more bearable.”

Dr. Schatzlein’s story brings up a fact that some might forget: There are two stories for each transplant – the person giving the organ and the person receiving it. He says being a heart transplant surgeon gave him a unique perspective on the importance of organ donation.

“You see the people who die because they don’t get the organs,” he said. “On a typical transplant waiting list, most of the people are going to die without getting a heart.”

In fact, each day, an average of 79 people receive organ transplants, while an average of 22 people die each day waiting for transplants because of the shortage of donated organs, according to the U.S Department of Health & Human Services. “There are only about 2,000 donor hearts available in a typical year in the United States and there are about 80,000 people that could use a transplant every year,” said Dr. Schatzlein. “[As a heart transplant surgeon], you get to know [the patients] because they go through a process of being approved for a transplant. You get to know them and you realize that most of them are going to die.”

That’s why Dr. Schatzlein is committed to making sure everyone knows the benefits of organ donation. February 14th is National Donor Day, which focuses on the donation of organs, tissues, marrow, platelets and blood. Dr. Schatzlein is also committed to helping others understand the realities of organ donation versus the perception.

“The recovery of organs is certainly a reverential thing,” he said. “Folks have normal, open casket funerals after organ recoveries. So it’s not any kind of a desecration or a mutilation. Organ retrievals are done very respectfully.”

And he says the help others receive from organs is reason enough to become a donor.

“It truly is the gift of life. Your organs don’t go away until you don’t need them anymore. And it essentially always provides some solace for the family,” he said. “I would go so far as to say that I never knew an organ donor family that regretted their decision – and I was involved in kidney transplants during my training, so I knew a lot of organ donor families.”

Dr. Schatzlein admits, though many concerns about donation will go away with education, some have religious barriers to donations which need to be respected. But if one does decide to become an organ donor, it is important to make sure to have a family conversation.

“By signing a donor card and making your wishes known, not only on the card, but to your family, you save your family the agony of wondering what you want,” he said. “Then if the event comes up, they don’t have to wonder and fret and worry. My wife would just say, ‘Mike’s an organ donor. Nothing for anybody to discuss.’ Families have enough stress at the time of death, so you’re doing your family a favor by making your wishes known.”

No doubt emboldened by the memory of that 14-year-old boy saving another’s life after losing his own, Dr. Schatzlein doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to organ donation. He walks the walk.

“You know, everybody in my family is an organ donor.” To learn more about becoming an organ donor, visit www.organdonor.gov.