Critically Ill Maryland Teen Adjusts Well to Classmate's Heart

PHOTO: Skylar Marion (right), a 15-year old classmate of Kyle Wilkerson, who died in a hit and run accident, had his heart transplanted into Kyle (left).
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When the doctor showed up at his hospital bed and told Kyle Wilkerson that she had good news, that she had a heart for the Maryland teenager, Kyle had a suspicion. Mom Denise Wilkerson says her 15-year-old son looked up at the cardiologist and asked, "Is it Skylar's heart?"

Skylar Marion, a fellow ninth-grader and acquaintance of Kyle's had died from injuries suffered days earlier in a hit-and-run accident. After the accident, Skylar, 15, was rushed to the shock-trauma center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where he was placed on life support.

It was the same hospital where Kyle had spent two months being treated for heart failure. His heart was so badly damaged from a rare genetic condition that he had suffered a stroke from a blood clot, and doctors had to install a heart pump to keep him alive until they could find a donor.

As Skylar's father, Mike Marion, was making the wrenching decision to remove his son from life support, he learned about Kyle, a teen from their town of Pasadena, Md., who needed a heart. Marion didn't know Kyle directly, although it turned out his son did.

Marion said he went into Skylar's hospital room and faced his unresponsive son. "I asked him if it was OK to give that boy his heart, and I just felt a lift come off my shoulders, and I just felt, OK. It seemed like it was fine."

An emotional Wilkerson said, "In my heart, part of it broke. I had already been sad that Skylar didn't make it. It just overwhelmed me thinking this is such a miracle."

Authorities are still looking for the hit-and-run driver.

There are more than 2,000 heart transplants in the United States every year, and so-called directed donations of hearts are extremely rare, only two or three a year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Baltimore cardiologist Dr. Erika Feller, who treated Kyle, called this "a crazy story." There was no guarantee the heart would work for Kyle. Feller had already rejected a few other hearts that weren't a good match.

"It has to be the right blood type, and it has to be the right size, generally, and it just so happened both were prefect," said Feller, the medical director of heart transplants at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

So, on April 16, Dr. Sunjay Kaushal, the director of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery at the Baltimore hospital, carefully took out Kyle's damaged heart, and replaced it with the heart of a boy who lived just down the street, went to the same high school and shared a love of trick bike-riding with Kyle.

"His prognosis is excellent," Kaushal said. "We are really optimistic."

Denise Wilkerson met Mike Marion this week, the man who donated his son's heart. "He didn't cry," she said. "He hugged me. He thanked me. He thanked me like I did something for him."

Marion said, "It's a gift that her son gets to live. That makes Skylar a part of him, still living."

For the Wilkerson family, this is their second miracle heart. Eight years ago, Kyle's dad, Randy Wilkerson, suffered atrial fibrillation, a sudden irregular heartbeat. That is when doctors discovered that the then 44-year-old man was stricken with familial dilated cardiomyopathy, an inherited disease that causes heart failure.

The family knew then that Kyle would, one day, also likely need a heart transplant, just like his dad. But they never expected his heart to fail at such a young age.

"What is surprising is how quickly he needed the heart," Dr. Kaushal said. "The father needed it in his 40s, and he needed it in teenage years."

Kyle's dad had his own heart pump installed in 2005 and went on the transplant list. His doctor was Erika Feller, the same cardiologist who later treated his son. Months after getting his heart pump, Wilkerson got his own news from Feller: There was a heart waiting for him.

"It is pretty rare that the cardiomyopathy is so bad in both father and son to require something as significant as a heart transplant," Dr. Feller said. "It is pretty unusual."

Her husband's surgery and successful recovery gave Denise Wilkerson great comfort. She thought Kyle was in good hands at the University of Maryland Medical Center, although he would be the first pediatric heart transplant patient there under a new program established by Dr. Kaushal.

She praised the doctors and their care. "I have my two guys because of them," she said.

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