NEW YORK — A woman who got a new lease on life after a ground-breaking heart transplant between an HIV-positive donor and recipient got to meet the family of the woman who gave it to her, giving them a chance to hear their loved one’s heart beating in its new home.
Miriam Nieves, 62, on Tuesday eagerly hugged the mother and sisters of Brittany Newton, a 30-year old Louisiana woman whose heart she received earlier this year in what doctors at Montefiore Medical Center said was the first heart transplant from an HIV-positive donor to an HIV-positive recipient.
“The only words that come this Thanksgiving for me is, I am so thankful and so grateful for science, for my family, for my God,” Nieves said. “But I can’t express enough that if it wasn’t for the donors, they are my angels, because they are the ones that allow me this second opportunity.”
Newton’s mother, Bridgette Newton, carried a large photo of her daughter, a certified nursing assistant who died of a brain aneurysm.
“My child is still walking around,” she said. “And for that I will forever be grateful.”
Newton’s sisters, Breanne and Brianca, used a stethoscope to listen to her heart beating in Nieves’ chest.
Breanne Newton wasn’t surprised when she heard Nieves say she had more energy now.
“That was my sister. She had energy. She was a goer,” Breanne Newton said, adding, “We are very, very thankful. And it’s just a blessing.”
The transplant happened in April.
Nieves, a former public relations professional who now lives in Westchester, north of New York City, beat a heroin addiction 30 years ago but was left HIV-positive.
The married mother of three and grandmother of six started experiencing heart failure after problems with her kidneys.
In order to find a match when the shortage of donors is acute, doctors at the hospital expanded their search to include HIV-positive donors. Enter Newton, an organ donor whose family only learned of her HIV status after her death.
Doctors transplanted her heart and kidney into Nieves.
“This has never been done before,” said Dr. Omar Saeed, a transplant cardiologist at Montefiore. “I think it’s going to be done again because we’ve shown that it’s safe.”
“The reality is that there are more people who need hearts than there are hearts available,” said Dr. Vagish Hemmige, an infectious disease specialist at the facility. “The HIV heart transplant program enables people living with HIV to receive life-saving transplants from donors that otherwise wouldn’t be used.”