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Surgeon Bailey reflects 25 years after 'Baby Fae'

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Surgeon Bailey reflects 25 years after 'Baby Fae'

Dr. Leonard Bailey and his team performed the Baby Fae heart transplant 25 years ago. He now serves as chief of surgury at Loma Linda Children's Hospital. [photos: courtesy LLUMC]

Baboon's heart in infant created media storm; documentary set for release

October 20, 2009 | Loma Linda, California, United States | Ansel Oliver/ANN

Dr. Leonard Bailey walks into his office and defends his Loony Toons necktie.

"It sedates the kids a bit," says the legendary pediatric heart surgeon of his neckwear featuring Road Runner, Yosemite Sam and Bugs Bunny.

The chief of surgery for Loma Linda Children's Hospital operated that morning, as well as every day the previous week, and is planning the same packed schedule for the following week.

Many surgeons lay down the scalpel after age 60. But for Bailey, 66, who garnered international fame in 1984 after transplanting a baboon's heart into an infant girl, nearly every day is still another operating opportunity.

The days of cross-species organ transplants are gone due to controversies over possible infections. But 25 years ago, that baboon-to-human heart transplant paved the way for the world's first human-to-human heart transplant in a child a year later. Loma Linda University Medical Center is nearing its 500th successful case of pediatric heart transplants. One of those kids is even now in medical school.

"The majority of these children were programmed from conception to not be in this world ever more than just birthing and dying. Their lifespan was in days. When you think about it it's really quite amazing the quite large cadre of kids who have grown up," Bailey says.

Today, as more is known about complex congenital heart diseases, more infants can have their hearts surgically reconstructed instead of having to undergo a transplant, he says.

Many of the lives now saved through such procedures were made possible by a life that ultimately wasn't. In 1984, Teresa Beauclair visited Loma Linda University Medical Center with her infant daughter Stephanie, who suffered from hypoplastic left-heart syndrome, an underdevelopment of the heart's left side.

"In those days, the advice to parents was to leave the baby here to die or take it home to die," Bailey recalls.

Before Stephanie and her mother had visited Loma Linda, Bailey had performed more than 150 heart transplants during six years of research in sheep, goats and baboons, many of them between species. In absence of an available donor heart from another human, Teresa made the decision to allow the experimental surgery on her daughter.

The patient's middle name, Fae, was chosen to provide anonymity for her and her mother. On October 26, 1984, Bailey and his team transplanted a baboon's heart into "Baby Fae," as she became known to the media. The procedure sharply divided the medical community and brought protest from animal rights groups, who called the procedure "ghoulish tinkering" with human and animal life, media reports stated.

Baby Fae lived for 21 days, two weeks longer than any other previous baboon heart transplant recipient.

On the day of her death, the surgeon made a rare public appearance to inform members of the press gathered outside the hospital. Reports said he was nearly breaking with emotion. "Infants with heart disease yet to be born will some day soon have the opportunity to live, thanks to the courage of this infant and her parents," Time magazine reported him as saying.

The media storm surrounding the 1984 case kept Bailey mostly in the hospital working on the case. Some accused him of solely seeking publicity. Bailey now says he thinks the press did a decent job.

"It was all of a sudden, it was happening and they had to be on it with very little preparation," he says. "The bottom line is they made such a big issue of it that a year later we were able to do an allograph, which is a human-to-human heart."

Now 25 years later, his goal is to continue treating congenital heart disease in children and strengthen the growing department. He also wants to remain an active family man and maintain his health. Two years ago he went under the knife himself after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He says the experience was frightening at first, but he came to terms with it. Now he's beyond a reasonable risk of recurrence, he reports.

"You know what happens to you, psychologically? You think 'I wonder if it's coming back,' or 'I wonder what that pain was.' That isn't to say that I would be necessarily afraid to die ... I'm just not ready to hang it up here yet."

Bailey says he's able to stay spiritually grounded, even when he loses patients.

"It's always an emotional and dreadful experience. But it actually strengthens my faith. In my view that's part of life. There are two things certain in biology: birth and death."

Bailey has spent his life working to lengthen the lifespan of infants born with an untimely death sentence. Many stay in contact.

"I see old patients sometimes and they give me a hug and I think 'My goodness, you were just a baby when we first met and here you are.' It's thrilling. ... That by itself wouldn't get me up in the morning, although it's a really sweet piece of it. What gets me up is the challenge to make it better."

Baby Fae's mother, Teresa, is now working to put herself through nursing school in Kansas, a university spokesperson said. She and Bailey will reunite October 31 as the university debuts a documentary titled Stephanie's Heart: The Story of Baby Fae.

Teresa will attend the ceremony with her three children.

For more information, see www.llu.edu/news/360/2009/baby-fae.page

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