Patient Stories

A New Heart, Kidney and a New Life

Dec. 8, 2020

Former president and CEO at Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio receives heart-kidney transplant after rare heart disease diagnosis.

For most of her life, Donna Jones Baker has inspired the local community through her leadership and advocacy for others. Donna grew up in Paducah, Kentucky, and worked as a nonprofit executive for most of her career.

Donna was recruited from a job in Baltimore, Maryland, for the position of president and CEO of Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, a nonprofit organization that helps eliminate economic and racial discrimination in underserved populations — especially African Americans — around the community. In that role, Donna served as a beacon of hope and change. Multiple Cincinnati mayors have appointed Donna to various committees over the years, including the Child Poverty Collaborative and Complete Count Committee, which helped ensure Cincinnati had a complete person count for the National Census.

Donna’s ability to make a difference took a major detour two and a half years ago, the beginning of a long, strenuous health journey. Despite a lack of history in her family, she would need a new heart and kidney.

A virus attacked Donna’s whole body, including her heart, and put her in a state of physical shock. She was brought to UC Health, where she saw David Feldman, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and pediatrics and clinical director of the Cardiovascular Service Line at the UC Heart, Lung, & Vascular Institute, and Louis Benson Louis IV, MD, chief of Cardiac Surgery at UC Medical Center.

Dr. Feldman and Dr. Louis worked with a multidisciplinary team and decided that Donna would not survive unless she received a left ventricle assist device (LVAD), a mechanical device that helps the heart pump blood. Dr. Louis brought her to the operating room and performed the procedure to implant the LVAD.

The virus had caused a rare cardiovascular disease called giant cell myocarditis, which attacks the heart and is usually fatal without a transplant.

“When you put the LVAD in, you take a sample of the heart muscle and we send it off to pathology to figure out why their heart is failing,” Dr. Louis explained. “And that’s when we discovered the giant cell myocarditis.”

Donna remained at UC Medical Center in hopes of quickly having a heart transplant. But after receiving the LVAD, Dr. Feldman discovered cancer on one of her kidneys. With her combined heart-kidney disease, called cardiorenal syndrome, and the need to have the cancerous kidney removed, she required both a heart and kidney transplant. Donna’s diagnosis was grim.

“All of it was frightening. I was in and out of the hospital from April to October in 2018,” Donna said.

S. Gregory (Greg) Baker, Donna’s husband of 14 years and a retired City of Cincinnati public administrator, stood by her side and saw the challenges she went through with her health.

“This was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever been through,” he said.

Leading the Region Through Academic Medicine

UC Health is home to the region’s first and most experienced adult heart transplant program. In late 2015, UC Health recruited Dr. Feldman and Dr. Louis for their expertise and experience to lead our heart transplant surgery.

As the region’s academic health system, UC Health focuses on a multidisciplinary approach, where surgeons of different specialties collaborate in order to deliver the best outcomes for patients. These procedures are also coordinated with other UC Health departments, including Surgery, Anesthesia, Medicine, Social Work, Pharmacy, Nutrition Services and many others. UC Health also uses the power of science and academic medicine to search for solutions to give patients another option when things look dire.

In Donna’s case, her care team consulted with E. Steve Woodle, MD, UC Health transplant surgeon, chief in the Division of Transplant Surgery and professor in the Department of Surgery at the UC College of Medicine, to see how they could transplant Donna safely despite her cancer. Dr. Woodle recommended that she have her kidney removed first, then have a dual transplant. Removing the kidney would cure her cancer.

Each year, UC Health performs around a half dozen heart-kidney transplants. “Every aspect of patient care at UC Health is done collaboratively,” Dr. Feldman said.

Donna had her kidney removed in January 2020 by Madison Cuffy, MD, UC Health surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the UC College of Medicine. Donna would then go onto the transplant list and wait for a donor match for both organs.

Experts Collaborate to Save Another Life

Early in the morning on July 17, 2020, Donna received the call that would change her life. It was from UC Health Transplant, informing her that they had a heart and kidney match. Minutes later, she and Greg were on their way down to UC Medical Center.

“I had mixed emotions because I knew the healing process would be quite long and difficult,” Donna said. Greg was also nervous, but after arriving at the hospital, there were a number of signs that he said helped strengthen his faith.

Dr. Louis performed Donna’s heart transplant. Soon after, Donna had her kidney transplant. In all, about eight hours in the OR.

“We were able to pool all of our resources together and get her the treatment she needed,” Dr. Louis said. “We came up with a plan during each step of Donna’s care journey to help get her through and survive her condition.”

Donna spent the next few days in the Intensive Care Unit recovering from the lengthy procedure. She felt good, but knew the process to recovery just began. It has been about four months since the heart-kidney transplant, and slowly but surely, Donna is feeling better than she has in years. She continues to return to the Clifton Campus for post-transplant appointments, and remains determined to work hard to keep herself in the best condition possible.

Throughout the entire journey, both Donna and Greg relied on their faith and love for each other, especially on the toughest days. The couple will now be able to get back to the things they love, including traveling.

“I want to enjoy the new life I’ve been given,” Donna said.

Donna’s doctors told her that she should be back to full strength in the next few months. Once she fully recovers, she would like to return to her community advocacy, working to strengthen the community and with children in poverty.

None of this would be possible without Donna’s UC Health multidisciplinary care team.

“It’s more than being smart and being able to do the operation,” she said. “You have to look at the whole person, who they are and what they are about. I believe the team at UC Health does that. Dr. Louis, Dr. Feldman and their support staff are outstanding. Dr. Feldman is there for you all the time, and I am also indebted to my primary care doctor, Nita Walker, MD. She is phenomenal. The care and concern I had was incredible.”

After the transplant, Dr. Feldman and Dr. Louis studied Donna’s first heart to see what they can do in the future for other patients suffering from rare cardiovascular diseases.

Despite the stress of waiting for Donna while she had her surgery, Greg felt at ease because of the hourly communication from a nurse practitioner, who was in the OR during her procedure.

“In addition to the doctors, the team in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit is top-notch, going above and beyond the call of duty,” he said. “At this point, it’s as much of a mental fight for Donna as it is a physical one as she continues to progress.”

When asked about the prospect of having a transplant during the COVID-19 pandemic, Donna had no hesitation. She felt safe coming to UC Medical Center because of all the safety precautions in place.

It has been a long journey for the Baker family. But they now have the opportunity to get back to their lives together – healthy and happy.

“If I had a message for my care team, I’d say thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart (and kidney!),” Donna said.

In the future, doctors and researchers at UC Health will continue to use academic medicine to discover more about rare conditions, such as the one Donna had, so that we can save more lives and offer hope when all seems lost.