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Down syndrome patient celebrates anniversary of novel transplant

Posted by on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Around the Medical Center, Spring 2022 .


The Eitl family poses with the plaque it donated to thank the transplant team for taking care of Joe Eitl, who received a heart and liver transplant last year. Photo by Susan Urmy.

Joe Eitl, 38, was among the first patients in the country with Down syndrome to undergo a heart and liver transplant, and his story is featured in the documentary TV series “Last Chance Transplant” on the streaming service Discovery+.

To mark the one-year anniversary of the lifesaving transplant, Eitl and his family traveled from their home in Philadelphia to the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU) at Vanderbilt University Hospital in November 2021 to donate a plaque inscribed with the names of the people who took care of him. The family wanted to thank the staff for the care Eitl received during his stay as a patient for more than six months.

“While we were here, we actually kept track of every nurse that took care of Joe, and we decided to do something for CVICU,” said Peg Eitl, Joe’s mother. “Obviously, we wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the help that we got from all of you.”

Eitl was born with a congenital heart defect, and when he was 7, he underwent a Fontan procedure, which meant that his heart would be pumping blood at a much higher pressure, which eventually took a toll on his liver. He had more than 25 operations over his lifetime.

By 2019, Eitl was in end-stage heart and liver failure. His doctors in Pennsylvania had exhausted all palliative measures and suggested placing him in hospice care because they felt he was too high risk for a transplant. His family began their quest and searched nationally for a transplant center that might save his life.

“The only hospital that actually was willing to meet Joe was Vanderbilt,” Peg said.

The family traveled to Vanderbilt just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning in spring 2020. Eitl was hospitalized for five weeks, and his condition was so poor that he wasn’t considered a good candidate for transplantation.

After reaching certain milestones, Eitl was placed on the transplant list on Nov. 9, 2020, and had his transplant about two weeks later. His family never expected the transplant to happen because of Joe’s Down syndrome, but they are very thankful that Vanderbilt’s transplant team saw it differently.