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1984

Baby Fae dies

“Baby Fae,” a month-old infant who had received a baboon-heart transplant, dies at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, California.

The infant, named Baby Fae by doctors to protect her parents’ anonymity, was born with hypoplastic left-heart syndrome, an almost always fatal deformity found in newborns in which parts or all of the left side of the heart is missing. A few days after Baby Fae’s birth, Loma Linda heart surgeon Dr. Leonard L. Bailey convinced Baby Fae’s mother to allow him to try the experimental baboon-heart transplant. Three other humans had received animal-heart transplants, the last in 1977, but none survived longer than 3 1/2 days. Bailey argued that an infant with an underdeveloped immune system would be less likely to reject alien tissue than an adult.

On October 26, Bailey performed the world’s first baboon-to-human heart transplant, replacing the 14-day-old infant’s defective heart with the healthy, walnut-size heart of a young baboon. Baby Fae survived the dangerous operation, and her subsequent struggle for life received international attention. After living longer than any other human recipient of an animal heart, Baby Fae’s body made a concerted effort to reject the alien transplant. Doctors were forced to increase dosages of an immuno-suppressive drug, which caused kidney failure. Ultimately, doctors were defeated by the swift onset of heart failure, and on November 15 Baby Fae died, after holding on for 20 days.

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