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Alternate Heart Program Decreases Waiting Time for Heart Transplants

Every year, an estimated 500 Americans die waiting in vain for a heart transplant. Many more die because they are too sick or old to qualify for the transplant waiting list. But there is some hope for patients whose doctors are willing to implant a lesser-quality heart. VOA's Melinda Smith has more on what's called the Alternate Heart program.

Seventy-three-year-old Morris Shulman has had a second chance at life. Three years ago, he received a heart transplant:

Though Mr. Shulman was too old to qualify for a heart in prime condition, he was a good candidate for one that was somewhat diseased or came from an older donor, says Dr. Donna Mancini of New York's Presbyterian Hospital.

"What we're learning is that those hearts really do come back and they're good organs..."

Morris Shulman still works at a New York City supermarket and is grateful he can spend more time with his family:

"I watched my grandchildren grow up...or growing up, I think, which is the best part of the whole thing," said the heart recipient.

There are some risks associated with the alternate hearts: a greater chance of infection and a lower survival rate. Still, Dr. Hillel Laks of the University of California-Los Angeles thinks it's worth it:

"Most of the patients who get on the alternate list get a heart in about half the time than people on the regular list,” said Dr. Laks.

Waiting for a second transplant has been an ordeal for Dan Ramirez and his wife, Barbara. He received his first replacement heart 16 years ago. Now that one is giving out and he's on the 'alternate' list.

"At first I didn't like it,” Dan said. “I want a new heart, so you know, I want the biggest and the best model you have."

The Alternate Heart program has meant more donor hearts are available to more patients. For Morris Shulman, it has meant more time with his wife Stella:

"I never left my wife alone. I think I married the most beautiful woman. I'm here for her and she's here for me."

The Shulmans are looking forward to celebrating their 53rd wedding anniversary in October.