Baby Fae and the Baboon Heart

On October 26, 1984, Dr. Leonard L. Bailey did what many believed was impossible. He performed the first baboon-to-human heart transplant at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, California. Dr. Bailey replaced a 14-day-old infant girl’s defective heart with the healthy, walnut-sized heart of a young baboon.

Known as “Baby Fae”, the infant was born with hypoplastic left-heart syndrome, a deformity that is nearly fatal and found in newborns in which part or all of the left-side of the heart is missing. Just a few days after her birth, Dr. Bailey was able to convince Baby Fae’s mother to allow him to try an experimental baboon-heart transplant. Only three other humans had received animal-heart transplants, the last in 1977. But none were able to survive longer than 3 ½ days. Bailey felt that Baby Fae would be able to survive since an infant with an underdeveloped immune system would be less likely to reject alien tissue than a grown adult. The concept of the surgery was considered to be extremely controversial. It divided the medical community in half and brought protests from animal rights groups who called the procedure “ghoulish tinkering with human and animal life.”

Baby Fae miraculously survived the operation and her struggle for life received international attention. After living longer than any other human recipient of an animal heart, Baby Fae’s body made the effort to reject the organ. Doctors were forced to increase dosages of an immune-suppressive drug, leading to kidney failure. Ultimately, doctors were defeated by the quick onset of heart failure. On November 15, 1984, Baby Fae died after surviving for 20 days following the transplant.

Dr. Bailey Still Working to Treat Children with Heart Defects

Today, Dr. Leonard Bailey is the chief of surgery at Loma Linda Children’s Hospital. Although many surgeons choose to retire after the age of 60, Bailey is still returning to work practically every day waiting for another operating opportunity.

While the days of cross-species organ transplants are long gone due to controversies over possible infections, Dr. Bailey’s transplant paved the way for the first human-to-human heart transplant in a child just one year later. Since that time, Loma Linda University Medical Center has provided more than 500 successful pediatric heart transplants.

“The majority of these children were programmed from conception to not be in this world ever more than just birthing and dying,” Bailey says in an interview. “Their lifespan was in days. When you think about it it’s really quite amazing the quite large cadre of kids who have grown up.”

Since we know more about complex congenital heart diseases today, more infants can have their hearts surgically constructed instead of having to undergo a transplant. Many of the lives now saved though such procedures were made possible by the experimental surgery performed on Baby Fae. Before that time, Bailey recalls, “In those days, the advice to parents was to leave the baby here to die or take it home to die.”

On the day of Baby Fae’s death, Dr. Bailey made a rare public appearance to inform the members of the press who gathered outside the hospital. Reports said that he was nearly broken with emotion. “Infants with heart disease yet to be born will some day soon have the opportunity to live, thanks to the courage of this infant and her parents,” Time magazine reported him as saying.

The media storm surrounding the 1984 case kept Bailey mostly in the hospital working on the case. Some accused him of solely seeking publicity. Bailey now says he thinks the press did a decent job.

“It was all of a sudden, it was happening and they had to be on it with very little preparation,” he says. “The bottom line is they made such a big issue of it that a year later we were able to do an allograph, which is a human-to-human heart.”

Now more than 25 years later, his goal is to continue treating congenital heart disease in children and strengthen the growing department. He also wants to remain an active family man and maintain his health. Two years ago he went under the knife himself after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He says the experience was frightening at first, but he came to terms with it. Now he’s beyond a reasonable risk of recurrence, he reports.

“You know what happens to you, psychologically? You think ‘I wonder if it’s coming back,’ or ‘I wonder what that pain was.’ That isn’t to say that I would be necessarily afraid to die … I’m just not ready to hang it up here yet.”

Bailey says he’s able to stay spiritually grounded, even when he loses patients.

“It’s always an emotional and dreadful experience. But it actually strengthens my faith. In my view that’s part of life. There are two things certain in biology: birth and death.”

Bailey has spent his life working to lengthen the lifespan of infants born with an untimely death sentence. Many of which stay in contact with him.