As many as 4,000 people in the United States are waiting for a heart or heart and lung transplant, and more than 25% will die before they get a donor organ.
Some of the top transplant programs in the country are addressing the shortage by accepting hearts from donors who had active hepatitis C. Recipients know going in they will get the disease, but, so far, they've all been cured.
Kerry Hayes has had a faulty aortic valve since he was born.
"I wasn't getting the oxygen I was supposed to get. Blood would flow back and forth instead of all one direction," Hayes said.
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He got an artificial heart a year and a half ago, which is almost as long as he was on the list for a donor heart. His doctor found Hayes a heart from a donor who had hepatitis C. It could be cured with antiretrovirals after surgery. Hayes got his heart and just found out his hepatitis C is gone.
"I felt that I was probably going to be cured, but you know, it feels good to have somebody tell you, 'Yes, you are for sure cured,'" Hayes said.
Transplant surgeon Jorge Reyes, chief of transplant surgery at University of Washington Medicine, said 20 livers and hearts from donors with circulating hepatitis C have gone to patients so far.
"They're Hep C negative. They have never been exposed to Hep C, but the risk of dying of their liver disease or their heart disease, etc., is very high," Reyes said.
Twelve patients have been cured of hepatitis C. Seven are still getting treatment and one died of transplant complications. No potential recipient has said no.
"If we have a donor who is hepatitis C positive, and with healthy organs, all those organs should be used," Reyes said.
Hayes is still taking a lot of anti-rejection medication, but said he's delighted to get back to his normal life with Rina, and his family.
"All the signs are pointing to getting back to being like everyone else," Hayes said.
Reyes said his team was looking at expanding the program to include kidneys from hepatitis C-infected donors, but he wanted more study done first. In an initial study, 20 patients at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia were cured of hepatitis C after kidney transplants from infected donors.
Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Executive Producer, Wendy Chioji, Field Producer; Bruce Maniscalo, Videographer and Roque Correa, Editor.