10 years on, Michelle Gribilas shares how world-first ‘heart in a box’ transplant saved her

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More than ten years ago, Michelle Gribilas, 67, from Sydney, thought her days were numbered after being diagnosed with heart failure due to an inherited cardiomyopathy.

She needed a donor heart.

Her subsequent heart transplant would make headlines around the world as the first patient to receive a ‘heart in a box.’

Michelle is keen to raise awareness on the importance of heart health in the Greek community during Heart Week (May 6-12) this year.

By Martina Simos

Michelle Gribilas, who was born on the Greek island of Kastellorizo, was married at 17 and is now the mother of four children aged from 46 to 50, grandmother of 11 and a great-grandmother of a five-month-old baby.

Together with family, Michelle will celebrate her 10-year transplant milestone in July. They will celebrate that Michelle was the world’s first ‘Donated after Circulatory Death’ (DCD) heart transplant patient on July 14, 2014. 

Michelle Gribilas.

This was due to groundbreaking heart research at the time by the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney.

It was hailed as the biggest heart transplant breakthrough in a decade as previously, donor hearts were transplanted from brain-dead patients whose hearts were still beating. The heart Michelle received had been ‘Donated after Circulatory Death’ (DCD), where the heart had stopped beating.

Prior to the transplant, Michelle had struggled to walk 100 metres and was very ill, unable to do much other than sit upright on the couch because of fluid build-up.

“I got sick in 2013. I couldn’t breathe because my heart wasn’t working properly,” she told The Greek Herald.

Michelle
Michelle (centre-left).

“I was sick for two weeks. I couldn’t lie down because I had too much fluid in my lungs.”

Michelle still remembers the life-changing call from the hospital to say that a heart was available.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

“I was screaming, yelling, crying. I rang my family and by the time I got to the hospital all my children and grand-children were already there.”

On July 14, 2014 Michelle received her new heart at St Vincent’s Hospital.  

Dr-Eleni-Giannoulatou-Victor-Chang-Institute-Lab-2022-HIGH-RES
Three heart transplant survivors, Michelle (right).

She spent nine days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and found out that she was the first in the world to receive a DCD heart transplant. One month later she had recovered and was able to go home.

Today, Michelle attends medical appointments every six months and listens to the doctors on how to look after herself, taking medication and walking to stay fit.

“If I didn’t have the heart transplant I would have died,” she said. “I can do everything. What I used to do before, I do now.”

Heart in a box research

An-illustration-of-a-heart-in-a-box
An illustration of a heart in a box.

Professor Peter MacDonald and his research team at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute had discovered how to transplant donor hearts that had stopped beating after death.

The culmination of 20 years of heart research would result in a world-first heart transplant in Australia with three recipients undergoing this procedure in 2014.

The procedure was done by using a defined preservation fluid developed in the laboratory over 12 years and a machine that allows the heart to beat outside the body known as ‘Heart in a Box.’

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute – 40 years of heart research

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute was established in honour of the legendary heart transplant surgeon Dr Victor Chang AC in 1994. The Institute was officially opened in 1996 in Sydney by the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

One of the Institute’s researchers is Greek-born Associate Professor Eleni Giannoulatou, 43, who was raised in Athens, Greece.

She joined the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in 2013, graduated from the University of Patras in 2004, has a Master of Philosophy in Computational Biology from the University of Cambridge, UK, and a Doctor of Philosophy in Bioinformatics from the University of Oxford, UK.

A/Prof Giannoulatou, who is also a mother to two young boys, is currently working remotely in Greece, visiting collaborators in Greece, the United Kingdom and attending conferences in Europe.

Dr-Eleni-Giannoulatou-Victor-Chang-Institute-Lab-2022-HIGH-RES
Dr Eleni Giannoulatou at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute Lab in 2022.

She recently received funding support from NSW Health to investigate the genetic causes of Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD).

“SCAD is an emergency condition that occurs when a tear forms in one of the blood vessels in the heart,” A/Prof Giannoulatou she told The Greek Herald.

“If not diagnosed and treated quickly, it can cause heart attack or sudden death.

“SCAD predominantly affects young healthy women with no obvious risk factors, often when they have been in a vulnerable condition such as during pregnancy, postpartum or after physical or emotional stress.”

Dr Eleni Giannoulatou at the Victor Chang Institute
Dr Eleni Giannoulatou at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute with her team.

A/Prof Giannoulatou said she is proud to be associated with the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and has been involved in many collaborative studies on congenital heart disease genetics.

“My interest in cardiovascular research began before joining the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, but it was further fuelled by the opportunities and resources available here,” she said.

“Like many, my personal experiences with cardiovascular disease in my family also drives my passion to improve screening, diagnosis, and treatment for patients.”

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