Janet Scheel, MD, may run the Heart Failure Program now, but her first love was cardiac catheterization as a resident nearing graduation. Dr. Scheel made the leap to the then-emerging field of heart transplants soon after, running programs at the University of Maryland Medical Center and The Johns Hopkins Hospital, before becoming Director of the Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Program at the Children’s National Heart Institute in 2013.
“Transplants really have not been around as long as you might think in terms of success because it’s development of effective immunosuppressive medications that make it successful,” says Dr. Scheel. “When I started in the field, it was something you did on the side with congenital heart disease in cardiology because there wasn’t enough to make it a specialty. But that is starting to change now.”
Since joining Children’s National, the team has done eight heart transplants and helped to develop the Ventricular Assisted Device (VAD) Program. A VAD is a device used to support heart function while awaiting heart transplantation and Dr. Scheel credits the Cardiac Transplant Program’s success with the simultaneous growth of the VAD Program.
Dr. Scheel’s commitment and expertise has helped the VAD program to grow, however the transplant process can take time to complete. It often takes a long time to receive the heart and the patient has to be in the right condition and that waiting still makes Dr. Scheel nervous.
“Often [organ] donors are donating more than just their heart so you have to wait until everything is coordinated before you can pick it up,” says Dr. Scheel. “Sitting around and waiting is the worst — it doesn’t matter what time I get the call about a donor, I can’t sleep. Until that heart starts beating in the recipient’s chest, I cannot relax. It’s nothing to take lightly.”
The doctors at Children’s National conduct an extensive evaluation in order to determine if there is another option for the patient besides a transplant due to its limited time value. In 15-18 years the patient will need a new heart because the graft will fail or another problem will arise. However, doctors say that the patient’s quality of life improves drastically after a heart transplant.
“The quality of life we give these kids is great; I have transplant patients who play high school sports and I even have a patient who played college sports. Our patients graduate, get married, and usually have no restrictions. That’s what we give them,” says Dr. Scheel. “We don’t give them a normal lifespan, but we usually do give them a great quality of life and that’s worth it.”
Even though the job is difficult, Dr. Scheel says there are many reasons she continues to work with patients in need of heart transplants.
“What really keeps me in it are three things: the families are incredible, the kids I’ve taken care of are amazing, and the medicine is fascinating,” says Dr. Scheel. “Looking back at these past two decades working with transplant patients and what we’ve learned, we’ve just come so far. I also think that with the new knowledge we are constantly gaining this will get even better. It is that hope and belief that helps me stay in the field.”