Teenager Jacob Gram was born with a heart defect. It was a condition that resulted in him needing various surgeries throughout his young life. However, his situation didn’t improve. Then, when he developed lung disease too, there was only one solution. But that solution would blaze a trail for those who followed.
When Debbie Gram was shown her son’s X-rays, doctors had very few doubts. Looking at a heart that was too big for Jacob’s chest, and an accompanying snapshot of cloudy lungs, the news wasn’t good. Indeed, doctors didn’t believe there was any more they could do for the 15-year-old.
Jacob was born with a congenital heart defect. By its very definition a congenital heart defect is one that develops in utero. In Jacob’s case it resulted in seven operations throughout his young life. They were operations that gained him some extra time but didn’t offer a cure.
But then Jacob’s lungs began to fail, too. As his lung disease took hold, he had more and more difficulty breathing. Eventually the teenager came to rely on the use of oxygen tanks to keep him alive. The situation, then, didn’t appear to be very promising.
With his condition by this point being inoperable, there was seemingly only one option left for young Jacob. He needed a heart and lung transplant and he needed one fast. But there was a problem. And this time it didn’t lie in young Jacob’s rapidly declining health issues.
Most hospitals had told Debbie that her son’s condition was too severe and that a transplant wasn’t an option. But then one hospital stepped up to the plate. The doctors and surgeons at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital were at least willing to give the operation a shot.
And so Debbie gave it a shot, too. She had no idea how much time her son had left, or if a match could be found in time. Nevertheless, she registered Jacob on the transplant list. They crossed their fingers and hoped that a suitable donor could be tracked down before it was too late.
Indeed, due to the nature of heart-lung transplants, such procedures are rare. Both organs must be replaced during a single operation. And with a lack of suitable donors, it means that it’s a procedure that’s only carried out around a hundred times a year in the United States.
The majority of patients in need of a heart and lung transplant have life-threatening impairments to those organs. In fact, such people are given only a year or two to live. And according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, around 40 of the 250 patients awaiting a donor won’t find a match in time.
Despite the slim odds, however, Debbie received a surprising message shortly after her son’s registration. As she recalled to WCPO in April 2018, “It was about 2.45 a.m., the pager went off and I was like, ‘Oh!’ I wasn’t expecting it because he’d only been on the list for 21 days.”
Against the odds, and in an incredibly short space of time, a suitable donor had been found. The operation, however, was still a huge risk and doctors warned the Grams they would be taking a big chance by proceeding with the transplant. But it was a chance both parties had to take.
No one knew what the outcome would be. Jacob, whose health had deteriorated his whole life, and his mom, who knew the potential risks of such an operation, didn’t know what to expect. Likewise, doctors at the hospital didn’t know what would happen. But why?
As it happened, it was the first time the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital had ever performed a heart and lung transplant. Nevertheless, despite the uncertainty, doctors and surgeons trusted themselves enough to try it. And so too, the Grams put their faith in the doctors.
As one doctor confirmed to WCPO, “It’s the first one that’s ever been done here. Transplant is a rare occurrence.” His colleague affirmed, “You can think about telling someone that, the patient then being brave enough to say, ‘OK. You know what, I’m gonna take that chance. I’m gonna trust you.’”
A rare occurrence, indeed. Although there were around 3,000 operations to transplant either a heart or a lung in 2004, in the same year there were only 75 heart-lung transplants, with around half of them performed in the United States. But doctors had reason to be optimistic.
The outcomes of heart-lung transplants have been ever-improving over the years. In fact, it’s estimated by the British National Health Service that survival rates are around 85 per cent around a year after the operation. And Jacob himself had nothing but trust in his doctors.
As Jacob told WCPO, “They’ve been there all the time when I needed them. They’re my team.” Indeed, Jacob had never known a life without regular visits to the hospital, or a team of doctors around him. It’s what he had grown up with. So he had no hesitation putting his life in their hands.
As it turns out, Jacob needn’t have worried. As it happened, the operation was a complete success. And although in April 2018, three months after the transplant, he was still recovering in hospital and prone to infection, the 15-year-old’s spirits were high with a new lease of life.
“I have a life now,” Jacob described to WCPO. “I’m able to do things that I wasn’t able to do before.” It’s a situation his mom couldn’t be more grateful for. As she said, “I’m so thankful. I couldn’t thank the donor and the donor’s family enough.” So what will Jacob do next?
Well, maybe for the first time in his young life, Jacob is in the position where he can make plans. And with a life so far that’s been at the mercy of his illness, he perhaps has a better appreciation of the things most people take for granted. His dreams, then, are starting small, firstly with learning to drive, and then to take a trip to the beach. We wish him all the best with his new life!