Dr. Margarita Camacho, a surgeon at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, did 52 heart transplants last year, and has performed more than 300 in the past 20 years, making her one of the leading heart transplant specialists in the nation.
Camacho, who is being honored this week alongside other top professional women by Executive Women of New Jersey, takes an unusually hands-on approach to the job. When the nation’s organ donor network alerts her that one of her patients has reached the top of the list, Camacho hops on a plane and goes in person to pick up the heart and bring it back to New Jersey.
“I love this; this is a way of life for me,” said Camacho, who worked at the Cleveland Clinic and Montefiore Hospital in New York before joining Newark Beth Israel six years ago.
It is not typical for the transplant surgeon to personally pick up hearts, but Camacho believes it is critical that she personally monitor the condition of the donated heart in transit. For years, the standard procedure has been for the heart to be packed in ice, but a few months ago Camacho began using a new device that puts the heart on a pump and keeps it beating and circulating blood during the journey from donor to recipient.
The organization that matches organ donors and recipients, the United Network for Organ Sharing, has a computerized system for determining where each available heart should go.
“Once they identify a donor, the computer goes through the list and starts making offers for that organ. From a logistics standpoint, what that means to me is I will get a heads-up of sometimes a few hours or as long as 24 hours. It depends on the situation of the donor and how soon they are going to go to the operating room.”
In one recent case, a hospital had agreed to accept a heart from an organ donor located in the southern part of the U.S., but then had to turn the heart down at the last minute. One of Camacho’s patients then jumped to the top of the list “The donor was already in the operating room and the body was open, everything was ready to go. They called us and we took it. We mobilized a team in less than an hour.”
Camacho said about two-thirds of the heart donors are outside the New Jersey region. “So I travel a lot. I traveled a minimum of 45 times last year.” She has collected hearts in Florida, Wisconsin, and Montreal. Camacho gets to know the patient and the family in the weeks and days prior to the transplant, but because she is generally en route picking up the heart before the surgery, Camacho usually doesn’t see the patient on the day of the surgery until after the operation is done.
“It is just exhilarating to go to the family after the surgery and tell them that everything went well and they have a beautiful new heart,” Camacho said.
Newark Beth Israel has the third-largest heart transplant program in the country, with 63 procedures last year, 52 of them by Camacho. Dr. John A. Brennan, chief executive of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, said “she is at the top level in a surgical specialty that is dominated by men, and she is a lovely woman who is just wonderful with patients.”