Medical Moment: First-in-the-world heart, thymus transplant saves Easton

Published: Oct. 10, 2022 at 5:41 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are the most common type of birth defect.

As medical care and treatment have advanced, babies with a CHD are living longer and healthier lives. CHDs are present at birth and can affect the structure of a baby’s heart and the way it works.

In some children, symptoms that appear during infancy or even later may be the first sign of a problem.

Newborns with a congenital heart defect may have symptoms such as irritability or inconsolable crying, rapid breathing, excessive sweating, and difficulty feeding and gaining weight.

Symptoms in babies occur when the blood does not receive enough oxygen, or the heart cannot pump efficiently.

Symptoms often include cyanosis, in which the skin appears bluish; fluid retention in the chest; a heart murmur, which the doctor can hear with a stethoscope; or an absent or rapid pulse.

Decreased blood flow to the arms and legs may make a baby’s skin abnormally pale and cool. In older children and adolescents, congenital heart defects may affect growth and development and produce weakness, fatigue, and shortness of breath during normal activities and exercise.

Surgeons at Duke University Hospital performed the world’s first combination heart transplant and thymus tissue implantation to help give one child a fighting chance.

A year later, their 18-month-old patient, Easton Sinnamon, is a growing, thriving medical miracle.

Easton came into the world last year with six heart defects, in all, that were too severe for doctors to fix.

“If we didn’t go the transplant route, he wouldn’t be here today,” said Kaitlyn Sinnamon, Easton’s mother.

Doctors also determined that Easton had an immune system that wasn’t working.

“We found out that he didn’t have T cells,” said Duke University’s Chief of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery, Joseph W. Turek. “So, T cells are something that is produced by the thymus. They helped to fight infection.”

Dr. Turek and his team proposed an investigational procedure that had been pioneered at Duke but never performed in humans before: a combination heart transplant and implantation of cultured thymus tissue.

Kaitlyn says it wasn’t a difficult choice for their family to make, since the thymus implantation posed little risk to their son.

“If you do it and it works, you’re changing how transplants are done worldwide,” Kaitlyn Sinnamon said.

When Easton was six months old, a donor heart became available. Surgeons also sent thymus tissue from the same donor to a lab for processing. The heart transplant was first.

“And we went back to the operating room two weeks later, and we did the cultured thymic tissue implantation,” Dr. Turek explained.

Easton’s doctors and family noticed the difference immediately.

“He was no longer this kind of bluish, grayish color, not getting enough oxygen,” Kaitlyn Sinnamon remarked.

“It’s very exciting,” Dr. Turek continued. “He’s got a functioning heart. He’s got a functioning immune system.”

Easton left Duke Hospital after seven months growing stronger at home. Not only celebrating his first birthday but another one-year milestone.

“We call it his heart birthday, his heart-versary. August 6th was when he received his transplant,” Kaitlyn Sinnamon said.

A tiny pioneer, capturing hearts as he continues to heal them.

The heart transplant and thymus tissue implant were cleared by the FDA under an expanded access application. Easton’s mother, Kaitlyn, tells us doctors have just started reducing one of his anti-rejection medications. The anti-rejection medications can be toxic to organs, especially the kidneys.