It was an emotional reunion for a heart transplant recipient, the donor’s family and the doctors who made it all possible at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, New York.
But if there is a such thing as an ordinary heart transplant, this was not it. It marked the first time an HIV-positive patient received a heart from an HIV-positive donor.
“April 13 is my new birthdate. Because that’s when I got my heart,” said Miriam Nieves.
The 62-year-old Westchester mom and grandma is enjoying her new lease on life. She overcame addiction, an HIV diagnosis, then organ failure. In the spring of 2022, she needed a new heart and kidney, but because of her HIV status, her chances seemed grim.
“Fewer than 80 people with HIV have ever received a heart transplant in the United States,” said Dr. Vagish Hemmige, an infectious disease specialist at Montefiore Health System.
That’s when Nieves’ team of doctors at Montefiore Einstein Center for Transplantation made an unprecedented decision: widen the search for a donor to include someone who’s also HIV positive.
“We felt if we did this, she’d be in a category of her own. She wouldn’t be competing with anyone else in the whole country,” said transplant cardiologist Dr. Omar Saeed.
Within days, Nieves had a match and was on the operating table — becoming the first HIV-positive patient in the world to receive a heart transplant from an HIV-positive donor.
“I know that if it wasn’t for Brittany, I would not be here today,” Nieves said.
Brittany Newton was a 30-year-old aspiring nurse from Louisiana. Like Nieves, she was living with HIV. When she passed, it seemed unlikely her organs would be used, even though she was an organ donor.
But then, hundreds of miles away, there was Nieves.
“I know Brittany had a lot of energy because my family can’t keep up with me anymore.,” Nieves said.
This Thanksgiving, Nieves said she has a lot to be thankful for — including the moment she was able to meet Newton’s family for the first time: Her mother Bridgette, and her sisters Breanne and Brianka.
“You are a part of our family. Not only because you have the heart but because I just really love you,” Breanne Newton told Nieves.
In a moment they will all cherish, the Newton family took turns listening to their loved one’s heart – a heart of gold, they said — living on through Nieves. A gift for both families, forever.
“Knowing that my sister is not here physically but, you know, we actually met someone who has her heart. So I’m just very thankful,” Breanne Newton said.
“My child is still walking around. And for that I’ll forever be grateful. Believe that,” said mother Bridgette.
The doctors at Montefiore hope the surgery paves the way for more like it, and more lives saved.