389 Transplants Later, Program Marks 30 Years


Walter Stevens, 71, is a Vietnam War veteran who has faced his share of challenges. But perhaps none was greater than what he faced in 1991, when at the age of 46 he was diagnosed with heart failure and told a heart transplant was his only chance of survival.

Dr. John "Chip Oswalt

Dr. John “Chip Oswalt

Dr. John ‘Chip’ Oswalt, a cardiovascular surgeon with Cardiothoracic and Vascular Surgeons, performed the first heart transplant in 1986 at Ascension Seton and was also Stephens’ surgeon in 1991.

“When a person is in heart failure, it means the simple task of walking across the room causes complete exhaustion,” Oswalt said. “It’s been an honor and privilege to perform these procedures and see what a difference they make to our patients’ lives.”

Nearly 25 years later, Stevens has enjoyed his second chance at life. He received his new heart from a 15-year-old girl killed in a motor vehicle accident. Coincidently, Stevens’ daughter was the same age as his donor at the time of his transplant.

Walter Stevens

Walter Stevens

“I’m so grateful to my donor and her family and think about her every time I see my own daughter go through different stages of life,” Stevens said.

Since his life-saving transplant at the Ascension Seton Heart Specialty Care and Transplant Center at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin, Stevens was able to return to work, spend time with his wife and daughter and can now watch his two grandchildren grow up.

Stevens is one of 389 patients who received transplanted hearts over the past 30 years at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin. Ascension Seton Austin is the only Central Texas hospital performing these life-saving procedures.

Heart transplant recipients, including Stephens, and Ascension Seton doctors, nurses and other employees, celebrated this milestone Feb. 12 at Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin. Austin Mayor Steve Adler presented a proclamation honoring the program and spoke to employees at the event. KVUE, KXAN, Fox 7 and Time Warner Cable News covered the event.

Stevens and Oswalt spoke at the event. Other speakers included Pamela Combs, the center’s clinical manager; Dr. David Morris, cardiologist whose patient was the first heart transplant recipient; Dr. Mary Beth Cishek, who oversees all heart failure patients at the center; Michelle Segovia of the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance; and Kate Henderson, president of Ascension Seton Austin, Ascension Seton Northwest Hospital, Ascension Seton Southwest Hospital and Seton’s Health Equity Initiatives.

“This is an extremely exciting time at Ascension Seton to celebrate three decades of heart transplants, not only because of the hundreds of lives we’ve saved, but also because of the newer technologies and innovations we’re able to implement to help our patients,” Dr. Ernest Haeusslein, Ascension Seton Heart Specialty Care and Transplant Center medical director, said.

Mayor Adler and Pamela Combs

Mayor Adler and Pamela Combs

In addition, Ascension Seton Austin is recognized for implanting ventricular assist devices (VADs). A VAD is a pump that helps the heart circulate blood through the body. VADs have been used in the treatment of end-stage heart failure for over two decades as a bridge to heart transplants, and more recently as permanent support for “destination therapy” patients, who are not transplant candidates. Surgery is required to implant a VAD, which can be placed inside or outside the body.

Ascension Seton Austin is the only Central Texas hospital to earn Joint Commission certification for a Destination Therapy Ventricular Assist Device Program and Heart Transplant Certification from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Haeusslein stressed there is still a significant shortage of organ donors. Currently, 20 people are on Seton’s waiting list for a heart transplant. Last year, Ascension Seton performed 20 heart transplants and is projected to perform the same number this year.