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When the doctor is the patient: UW Health cardiologist gets rare heart-kidney transplant

February 1, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 25.9%. 2 min read.

“There’s some inefficiencies in medical care that become more apparent when you’re on the receiving end,” said Dr. Matt Wolff, UW Health's former head of cardiology.

Dr. Matt Wolff, a UW Health cardiologist, got a rare heart-kidney transplant in October.

Dr. Matt Wolff became a cardiologist, treating heart disease, before learning he has a genetic heart condition that can cause people to die suddenly as his father did at age 50. After spending years as UW Health’s chief of cardiology, replacing heart valves and doing angioplasties to clear blocked arteries, Wolff has undergone a major procedure himself: a heart-kidney transplant. Wolff, 60, received a heart and a kidney from the same deceased donor at UW Hospital in October.

He was one of five people to get the double transplant at UW last year, a record. It’s a step he tried to avoid through diet, exercise, medications, implanted devices and research into his family history, which led to the discovery that his great-grandfather died from the heart condition at 40 in 1900.

Other relatives, male and female, died from it in their 30s and 40s. “I worked hard to not have to get a transplant, but there’s no escaping genetics,” Wolff said.

Wolff gets a checkup at UW Hospital three months after his heart-kidney transplant from Dr. Fahad Aziz, right, and Dr. Kurtis Swanson.

He wasn’t swayed by his dad’s fatal heart condition, at least not knowingly. “If it was an influence, it was a subconscious influence,” he said. Wolff was swimming in the Chesapeake Bay at age 29 when he felt an irregular, rapid heartbeat.

As he waited, doctors inserted a balloon pump in his aorta to help his ailing heart keep pumping blood, a procedure he has performed on others. “We weren’t sure we were going to be able to get him to transplant,” said Dr. Jason Smith, a UW Health heart transplant surgeon.

Medications used after transplant for one organ can be hard on the other, Smith said, and patients needing more than one organ tend to be sicker so the operations can be more risky. “It took the field a long time to understand who are the right people to get it,” said Dr. Dixon Kaufman, director of the UW Health Transplant Center.

Before he got a heart-kidney transplant in October, Wolff and his wife, Kelly, thought they wouldn't be able to continue living at their home and sizable property near Cross Plains.

His transplant gave him more insight into the patient experience, he said, from taking difficult combinations of medications and filling out complicated forms to providers sometimes not showing up for appointments on time. “There’s some inefficiencies in medical care that become more apparent when you’re on the receiving end,” Wolff said, adding that his care was excellent overall. He doesn’t know anything about his organ donor, including the person’s gender or age.

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