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Baby Fae: a legacy of hope

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Christina Falloon gets teary-eyed when she describes how her 5{-year-old daughter Krysta recently scored the first goal of the season for her soccer team.

"If it weren't for Baby Fae, my daughter wouldn't be here today," said the 31-year-old mother from Buellton, whose daughter received a human heart transplant in 1988 that saved the 3-week-old girl's life. "We're grateful for that baby. It's sad she didn't make it."

Baby Fae was the 12-day-old infant who 10 years ago today received a walnut-size baboon heart in an operation at Loma Linda University Medical Center, 60 miles from Los Angeles. The first infant to receive an animal organ survived 20{ days; her full name was never released.

In the decade since Baby Fae's death, the science of suppressing rejection has advanced and human-to-human transplants have been fine-tuned.

At the same time, Americans have been forced to consider the limits of medicine, the ethics of subjecting a newborn to experimental surgery, the phenomenon of living with an organ from another species and animal rights.

During Baby Fae's brief life, people were fascinated and horrified by the prospect of an animal organ correcting her fatal heart defect. Dr. Leonard Bailey was accused of making a premature leap across the species barrier.

"The important legacy with her is she stimulated the concept babies could be transplanted and deserved to be transplanted as well," Bailey said. "We've been able to create a new form of therapy for severe heart disease in infants as a result of her legacy."

Bailey, 52, chairman of surgery at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and chief surgeon at the university's Children's Hospital, said the case also stimulated organ donations, although about 25 percent of children still die waiting. He had expected by now to be using baboons to fill that gap. But he hasn't implanted a baboon heart since Baby Fae.

"I haven't given up on it," said Bailey, who said it wasn't organ rejection but incompatible blood types that took Baby Fae's life. He said he could be ready to seek his hospital's approval for such transplants again next summer. "I hope society will permit this over time."