When an aspiring nurse and Louisiana native Brittany Newton died at the young age of 30 this spring due to a brain aneurysm, it was her “heart of gold” that made medical history and saved a Westchester woman’s life nearly 1,500 miles away.
Seven months after becoming the first HIV-positive person in the world to receive a heart from an HIV-positive donor at Montefiore Medical Center, 62-year-old Miriam Nieves, a Westchester resident, met the mother and sisters of deceased donor Newton, on Nov. 22.
An emotional meeting between the two parties at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx included Nieves’ appreciation at a second chance at life and the need for more organ donors.
“I am so grateful to the Newton family, and to Montefiore for taking a chance and extending my life,” said Nieves. “I hope other people see my story and start the conversation about organ donation … I hope to inspire more people to become organ donors and see that they have the power to save lives.”
Nieves’ road to a life-saving heart donation was not a given.
After years of recovery and effectively controlling her HIV — which she contracted after battling a drug addiction — Nieves experienced another health issue in 2006 when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer and needed to have one kidney removed.
Nine years later, Nieves’ remaining kidney began to fail, she began suffering from advanced heart failure, and also needed a concurring kidney transplant. When a donor match was found while she was being assessed for the kidney transplant surgery, it was apparent that her heart function had deteriorated significantly, making it unlikely that she would survive the operation.
Nieves’ heart donor, Newton, was found through the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency.
In 2012, the passage of the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act allowed those living with HIV to donate their organs to HIV-positive recipients, increasing the pool of donors and quicker access to a lifesaving organ.
In the U.S., there are between 60,000 and 100,000 people who could benefit from a new heart, yet only 3,800 transplants were performed in 2021.
“Sadly, many people with HIV waiting for a heart never receive one,” said Nieves’ cardiologist at Montefiore, Dr. Omar Saeed. “By successfully managing Ms. Nieves’ care, we have shown that HIV-positive donors are a lifeline, and we encourage more people to consider sharing this lifesaving gift.”
United Network for Organ Sharing notes that there are 3,341 on a waiting list for a heart transplant as of Oct. 28.
Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.