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Special Report: How local doctors are giving patients with heart failure another chance at life

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The outlook for people who received heart transplants used to be dire.

Now, people are living decades after the surgery.

Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center is celebrating 50 years since doctors performed their first heart transplant. Each year, the hospital performs 25 to 30 heart transplants. That number is higher than more than 60% of transplant programs worldwide.

"One evening I couldn't sleep. Every time I laid down, I couldn't breathe," said Elayne West, a heart transplant recipient.

West thought she may have come down with the flu but when she went to see the doctor the next morning, she was given a grave diagnosis.

 "I was waiting and the door was open a crack and I heard the doctor say I have a 54-year-old woman in total heart failure and I went oh my gosh that poor woman and then I realized I was the only one there and I was 54."

West was diagnosed with class 4 heart failure.

"Those individuals who have difficulty getting out of bed, having conversations, difficulty just doing day to day things like walking or answering phone calls," said Dr. Vinay Thohan with Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center.

West started treatment at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center. This week the institution is celebrating 50 years since doctors performed the first heart transplant in the Midwest.

"The vast majority of those patients did very poorly living hours to days,": said Dr. Frank Downey, with Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center.

Since 1984, 922 transplants have been done at St. Luke's and doctors say survival rates have improved drastically over the years.

"The average life expectancy for a cardiac transplant patient now is over 12 years and we have many patients approaching 20, 25 years."

Success rates have improved thanks in large part by ventricular assist devices. The heart pumps are implanted in patients like West to help them get ready for a heart transplant.

"Then they go home and they get stronger, their nutrition improves and then they're in a better position or more ready as they say to undergo the cardiac transplantation and tolerate the immune suppression."

Staff from St. Luke's were by West's side throughout the two and a half year journey from her diagnosis to receiving a new heart.

"You do develop an attachment to patients because really you want the best for them so really in the highs and the lows we're with them no matter what happens," said Maggie Brooks with Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center.

That ultimate high finally came for West in February of 2016. Days after the surgery, West had a whole new lease on life.

"It's amazing to be able to get up and walk out of the hospital. I had a walker yet just for balance but I was able to get up and walk about 5 days after getting the new heart," said West.

West started a program called Rachael's Heart in honor of her donor. West and a team of volunteers make small throw pillows with a heart on them and give them to heart donor families.

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