BHealthy Blog

The Story Behind Arkansas’ First Heart Transplant at Baptist Health

30th Anniversary Heart Hospital

At only 48 years of age, Mary E. Wilson was given less than a year to live.

With no explanation, she had developed severe cardiomyopathy, a life-threatening cardiac condition. Her heart was failing, and her prognosis was grim. With no long-term treatment options left, Mary started the evaluation process to be placed on the waitlist for a heart transplant through the new Baptist Health heart transplant program. The first of its kind in Arkansas, a transplant had yet to be performed in the program and they had only been accepting candidates for a little over a month – but with no other possible courses of treatment, pursuing a transplant was her last option.

On October 27, 1989, Mary was placed on the waitlist for a heart transplant at Baptist Health, with the understanding it did not ensure she would have an opportunity to undergo the procedure.

Two weeks later, everything changed.

On Wednesday, November 8, disaster struck the Wilcox family when a house fire claimed the lives of the three young Wilcox brothers, and two passed away at Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock due to smoke inhalation. In the face of immense grief, the parents gave permission for their boys’ organs to be donated for transplantation – and one, 10-year-old Jared Wilcox, shared a blood type with Mary. While tragedy still hung heavy after the loss of three young lives, Mary was about to be given a second chance at hers.

Permission for Jared’s heart to be donated was granted late Thursday. By 2 a.m. on Friday, November, 10, 1989, Mary was in surgery. Over the next two hours and fifteen minutes, Dr. Craig Kuykendall, assisted by Drs. John Ransom and Bill Fiser, took the donor heart and placed it within Mary’s chest. The heart immediately began to beat on its own upon implantation. Once the surgery was complete, Mary spent the next couple of weeks in Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock’s Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit and then the cardiac unit, where she was monitored by Dr. Kuykendall, as well as attending cardiologists Drs. Steve Hutchins and Jim Kizziar, to help her body accept the new organ. Eventually, Mary was released from the hospital to continue recovering at home – and look forward to her years ahead. The first heart transplant performed in Arkansas had been successful, and the standard of care for those with heart failure was forever raised.

Thirty years ago, Baptist Health performed the state’s first heart transplant. Today, we’ve performed nearly 300 heart transplants, and remain the only program in the state offering the procedure to adults. The Baptist Health Heart Failure and Transplant Institute provides unmatched care for hundreds of patients in every stage of the transplant process. Through the highest level of cardiac care and most comprehensive, seamless treatment of heart failure, we help amazing Arkansans live longer, fuller lives – while honoring the amazing legacies of the organ donors and their families who selflessly make these miraculous procedures possible.

Learn more about the Baptist Health Heart Failure and Transplant Institute.