The Long Wait: A Heart Transplant Story 14 Years in the Making

Augustus ‘Gus’ Harbert is proof that good things come to those who wait. After 14 long years, he finally got a new heart!

His heart transplant took place on Nov. 2, 2022, at the INTEGRIS Health Nazih Zuhdi Transplant Institute in Oklahoma City. “I just broke down crying when they told me the news,” Gus remembers. “I had gotten to the point that I really didn’t think it was ever going to happen. I didn’t think I was ever going to get a transplant.”

“Now I have a heartbeat,” he continues. “I hadn’t felt my heart beat for years. So when they gave me a stethoscope and let me hear my new heart shortly after surgery – I was crying again!”

The Journey

Gus’ heart journey began in 2008, when the then 29-year-old first came to the newly established INTEGRIS Health Advanced Cardiac Care program at INTEGRIS Health Baptist Medical Center.

Diagnosed with an enlarged heart, or cardiomyopathy, Harbert’s heart was unable to pump enough blood through his body. His condition was rapidly deteriorating. “I was dying, that’s God’s honest truth. My son, Cameron, was only two years at the time. He had his whole life ahead of him and I likely wasn’t going to be in it, without a miracle.”

As if an answer to a prayer, Gus became the first patient at INTEGRIS Health to be implanted with a left ventricular assist device, known as an LVAD.

Connected to the left ventricle of the heart and attached to the aorta, the LVAD takes over the function of circulating blood that the heart can no longer perform. He initially received the first generation LVAD called the HeartMate I. Ten months later he would be upgraded to the newer model, the HeartMate II.

“When Gus began his journey with his LVAD, I knew that he was a remarkable person with a willingness to face challenges and adversity for the sake of his son and his future,” says Douglas Horstmanshof, M.D., the director of INTEGRIS Health Advanced Cardiac Care at INTEGRIS Health Baptist Medical Center. 

“What we couldn’t know then is that we would be on a 14 year journey together, made possible by the very best technology that existed at that time in the HeartMate II LVAD. Gus truly became the definition of just how successful recipients of LVADs can be when they care for themselves well with the support of their families and our Advanced Cardiac Care team.”

Horstmanshof adds, “We continue to see remarkable success with our recipients who now get the next generation HeartMate 3 LVAD, building off of the contributions that Gus and others have made.”

The Detour

Harbert was originally not a heart transplant candidate because of his weight. His large 6’3’’ frame had a higher Body Mass Index, BMI, than allowed. He worked for several years to get his weight down, receiving a sleeve gastrectomy in 2016. Slowly but surely, the weight came off. After losing a significant 130 pounds, Gus reached the BMI needed to be placed on the transplant list.

The Destination

He moved to Oklahoma City from Tulsa to be closer to the INTEGRIS Health Nazih Zuhdi Transplant Institute, so he could get there quickly if and when a suitable heart became available. At 44 years old, he finally received a heart transplant.

“Gus is an incredible inspiration,” says James Long, M.D., Ph.D, co-founder of INTEGRIS Health Advanced Cardiac Care and a surgeon on all three of Gus’ surgeries, both LVADs and his heart transplant. “This is a powerful story of perseverance through adversity – enabled by all those who surrounded Gus with loving care, and the dedicated team providing the most advanced therapies for heart failure. What an honor it’s been for all of us who’ve been on this journey with Gus.”

David Vanhooser, M.D., was the primary surgeon during the transplant. “Gus’ transplant operation was as unique as his journey to get there, and I remember it well. Heart transplants are particularly special for cardiac surgeons, and despite having performed transplants for the past 30 years, it was still a surreal experience to remove the old diseased heart which had failed Gus, to remove the LVAD which had been keeping him alive, and to stare into his completely empty chest. His new heart was then removed from its suspended non beating state in the cold ice solution and we carefully and precisely reconnected the 2 main heart chambers and the two major blood vessels of this new heart into his body. We then allowed his warm oxygen filled blood to flow into the heart – waking it up from its suspended sleep. The team then watched closely as first one beat, then another, and another occurred, rejoicing as his new heart surged vigorously back to life. It was clear this new heart understood its mission and its destiny – beating again and again to join Gus on another beautiful life journey.”

“It’s been a long, hard road but it was definitely worth it,” claims Harbert. “I got to see my son grow up. He was my motivation. I got to see everything I wanted to witness. I just wanted to raise him – and I’m so very thankful I was able to do that.”

Gus’ son, Cameron, is now 17 years old and a senior in high school. “I prayed many nights for this moment to come. We grew up together struggling, but he never gave up on himself or me. I love him and I’m looking forward to this new journey.”

INTEGRIS Health Baptist Medical Center is the only center in Oklahoma to offer a full spectrum of advanced cardiac care support to include ECMO, LVAD, total artificial heart and transplantation. We are the only health care system in the state that can offer Oklahomans all of these options.

%d bloggers like this: