Donna Jones Baker with husband S. Gregory Baker. Photo provided
‘There were times that I thought there was no way out.’ – Dr. Louis F. Louis IV, MD. Cardio surgeon, UC Health
By Dan Yount
The Cincinnati Herald
In July 2020, Donna Jones Baker, a highly respected and beloved former president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, received a rare dual heart-kidney transplant at University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
The dual surgery came about a year after Baker had retired following a 50th anniversary luncheon for the local Urban League in 2019. A rare virus attacked her heart in April 2018.
Baker was diagnosed with a cardiovascular virus called giant cell myocarditis.
In simple terms, according to the Myocarditis Foundation, myocarditis is a disease that causes inflammation of the heart muscle. This inflammation enlarges and weakens the heart, creates scar tissue and forces it to work harder to circulate blood and oxygen throughout the body. Myocarditis can affect people of any age, and it is the third leading cause of Sudden Death in children and young adults. Almost all cases of giant cell myocarditis are diagnosed through autopsies.
Dr. Louis B. Louis IV, chief of Cardiac Surgery at UC Medical Center, who led the surgical team, said, “We were stunned when we first got the diagnosis about the giant cell myocarditis. There are only about 300 cases of this virus affecting the heart that are reported in medical literature. It was very telling in that we sent the slides to two other places before we accepted the diagnosis. It was just that bad.’’
Doctors Louis and David Feldman, who was part of the medical team caring for Donna, approached her husband S. Gregory Baker and said, “The heart transplant is now the only thing that is going to save her life. We have to do this.”
The doctors began working toward an urgent heart transplant, with the decision to keep Baker in the hospital, get the transplant done, and deal with this problem once and for all.
But there was a catch. They discovered Baker also had renal cell cancer on her left kidney. This caused additional concerns for both the doctors and Baker. “The cancer precluded my having a transplant,’’ Baker said. They would only transplant into a healthy body.
Despite a lack of a history of heart and kidney ailments in her family, were she to live, she would need a new heart and kidney.
However, Mrs. Baker’s condition worsened and waiting for a new heart was not possible. The decision was made to fit her with an LVAD (Left Ventricle Assist Device), a device growing in popularity for those unable to have a heart transplant. The LVAD is powered by two large batteries on either side of the body and connected to a controller on the abdomen and to the heart. Donna lived with the LVAD from April 2018 through July 2020.
While Baker was extremely thankful for the LVAD – it saved her life – she continued to be hopeful that a heart transplant would be possible.
One night, Greg got a call from Dr. David Feldman suggesting that if the kidney were removed, Donna would be “curative” for cancer, meaning that with the kidney gone, she would no longer have cancer and would be eligible to be on the transplant donor list.
The left kidney was removed by Dr. Madison Cuffy in January 2020, and she went on the list.
Greg said the ordeal has been horrific for his wife. “We could only take one day at a time” especially following the surgeries, as she healed and became stronger.
Donna said that it has been quite a journey. But family helped keep her in focus. “God does answer prayers,’’ she said.
The recovery has been slow, and she had to return to the hospital several times for several issues.
She was told she would begin to feel much better in February, and in another six months she would be back to normal.
During this long ordeal, Greg has been her rock and best friend, she said. “He has been by my side all of the time.”
Doctor Louis implanted the LVAD. “He’s been with us from the beginning. He also led the team for the heart transplant surgery. I just love him and Doctor David Feldman (MD, PhD., clinical director of the Cardiovascular Service Line at the UC Heart, Lung & Vascular Institute). Doctor Feldman has taken care of me following the surgeries. They are both outstanding. Doctor Feldman cares about who we are, and he’s just there all of the time and listens to our concerns.’’
Baker asserts that she could take a whole column to name all of individuals to whom she and Greg are indebted. The staff at UC, including Russ Hoffman and her Primary Care Physician Dr. Nita Walker, are “incredible,” she said.
Louis added he felt good that the surgical team was able to pull all the resources together and get Baker the treatment she needed.
“There were times that I thought there was no way out. There were times that other people thought there was no way out,’’ Louis said. “We went to top colleagues in the field and asked the questions. I asked them, ‘Do you think there is a way to get around this, because I do not know what else to do?’ And we were able each time to come up with a plan and were able to help Donna get around this and survive her condition.’’
Baker is the fourth woman to have a heart transplant at UC Medical Center.
Over the years, Donna Jones Baker has inspired the local community through her leadership and advocacy for others. She was recruited from Baltimore for the position of President and CEO of Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio, a nonprofit organization that helps eliminate economic and racial discrimination in underserved populations — especially African Americans — around the community. In that role, she served as a beacon of hope and change. Baker continues to be that beacon, not only socio-economic issues, but also for individuals who have major health challenges. She is making outstanding progress and is improving daily, she said, adding that she is anxious to return to the community she loves once she fully recovers.
Matt Martin, Communications Consultant, UC Health, contributed to this article.