Double Take: How one donor's two organs gave another man infinite possibilities for the future

March 08, 2023
A man in a hospital bed gives a fist pump to someone out of frame
Cosmore Suttle pumps his fist after receiving a successful double organ transplant. Photo by Sarah Pack

Some love stories are straight out of Hollywood. 

“When we first met, I really couldn’t stand him,” Ellen Suttle said.

This isn’t one of those stories.

It was the late ‘90s and Cosmore Suttle was a non-commissioned officer in the Army, stationed on a base in Heidelberg, Germany. Ellen, then in her early-30s, worked security at the gate. As she recalled, every time Cosmore came on base, he’d ask her out. Every time she’d say no.

“And then one day he asked, and I was really hungry,” she said with a laugh. “So, I said yes.”

Two seconds into that date, Ellen realized she had pegged him wrong. The Barbados native was, “funny, charming and unassuming.” And the young German woman was forever smitten. Today, the blended family lives just outside of Savannah, Ga., in a town called Pooler. And it was there, in Pooler, that Cosmore was a karate instructor and Ellen worked at Costco. 

Past tense because in January of last year, everything changed.

It was just another weekday. Cosmore picked up Ellen from work and they went out to dinner. On that particular night, they were at their favorite Thai restaurant. The waiter had just left the table with their order when Cosmore turned to Ellen and said he didn’t feel well.

A family of four sits on a bench outside on a sunny day 
The Suttles have always liked to travel. For the past few years that hasn't been an option. They hope to get back to it soon. Photo provided

That was the last thing he remembered before waking up in an ambulance.

“He just slouched in his chair and fell to the floor,” Ellen said. The next eight minutes – those terrifying 480 seconds while she waited on the paramedics to arrive – felt like an eternity to his significant other of now 25 years. 

“I just remember some guy coming over and doing CPR on Cos. I was completely in shock,” she said. “No question, it was the most terrifying moment of my life.”

The Suttles didn’t want to admit it at the time, but the truth was, warning signs had been brewing since 2020. A military veteran and 4th degree black belt, Cosmore wasn’t the kind of guy to just sit around on the couch. But one day, he did. And then he did it another. Soon his ankles began to swell, and his heart started to race. 

“I’ve always been a healthy guy,” he said. “I work out, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. So when my health started failing it was so weird.”

Very quickly, doctors in Savannah, Ga., diagnosed Suttle with heart failure. He was stunned. That wasn’t something that happened to people like him. People who took care of themselves. People whose families didn’t have a history of heart disease.

“The reasons why people’s organs stop working properly can be many; and quite frankly, we don’t always know the root cause,” said MUSC Health transplant surgeon Joseph Scalea, M.D. “But as a surgeon, I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on that. I just want to fix them.”

At first, the doctors in Savannah tried a variety of diets, medicines and even implanted a miniature defibrillator in his chest, but none of it really helped. Over the next two years those hard-core drugs, combined with the stress his heart was putting on the rest of his body, eventually caused one of his kidneys to fail. Leading to that terrifying moment in the restaurant.

At 57 years old, Suttle was told his kidney was shot and heart was functioning at 25% efficiency. If he didn’t get new ones – and soon – he would die. 

“It’s one thing to have one organ fail,” Scalea said. “But it goes from urgency to emergency when you’re talking about two.”

Two surgeons stand in the door to Suttle's hospital room 
MUSC Health transplant surgeons Drs. Arman Kilic (left) and Joseph Scalea replaced Suttle's heart and kidney, respectively. Photo by Sarah Pack

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, double organ transplants account for less than 1% of all transplant surgeries in the U.S. To date, the heart and kidney combination has been done less than 3,000 times. Ever. 

But medicine is constantly evolving. Surgeons’ skills are improving. Technology is advancing. On January 1, MUSC Health surgeons Scalea and Arman Kilic, M.D., gave Cosmore two new organs – Kilic the heart; Scalea the kidney – as well as a second chance at life.

Adding to the complexity of the operation was the fact that the organ donor was known as DCD, or a patient whose donation occurred after circulatory death (an occurrence that comprises only 15% of all transplants). Which makes Cosmore’s story all-the-more remarkable. There have been only about 20 other patients before Cosmore that had received a simultaneous heart-kidney transplant in the U.S. using a DCD donor.  

A man smiles from his hospital bed as two nurses tend to his needs 
Suttle smiles as PA Leanne Hewit (left) and patient care tech Hannah Party check his vitals. Photo by Sarah Pack

“These are the kind of things – special technology that allows us to preserve those organs while between donor and recipient – that are changing the future of medicine and transplantation,” Scalea said. 

Cosmore came out of the surgery a brand-new man. In his room after the surgery, Kilic told him his heart was like a Ferrari. Not missing a beat, Scalea added that his kidney was like a Maserati. 

Even with a successful surgical outcome, life in a post-transplant world has been tough for Cosmore. At first, he was weak. He’d still get out of breath easily. But over time, things slowly started to improve. And with the new year came a new lease on life. In the months that have followed, Cosmore has said he’s finally getting back to feeling the way he used to. Not perfect, he’ll admit, but the best he’s felt in more than three years – and things seem to get better nearly every day. 

“I’m not gonna lie, you definitely treasure your life more than you did before,” he said.

The Suttles say they have been back to doing the normal kind of things they used to do before all his trouble began. They eat meals together. Watch movies together. Travel is even on the horizon. And most importantly, their daughter, who postponed her wedding so her dad could walk her down the aisle – is starting to talk about the big day again.

“We definitely hang out more as a family,” Ellen said. “Even if they don’t like it and we get on their nerves. Because once you go through something like this you don’t take anything for granted.”