Story by: Lynne Choate; Reviewed by Kelly C. McCants, M.D. on July 5, 2023
Bob Wilson was busy as could be. He was working a full-time job in management, traveling with his life partner, Lucy, and active in adult sports leagues including a travel softball team, golf and bowling. At 64 years old in 2021, he was experiencing some mild chest discomfort every so often and some tiredness, but he figured that was part of life and didn’t worry too much about it.
“I began to notice the tiredness getting more frequent,” Bob said. “To the point that I found myself winded between bowls and had to take a seat to finish a frame.”
Bob recalls initially being diagnosed with bronchitis that later became pneumonia. While the doctors were treating the respiratory illness, he just wasn’t getting any better. At the close of a weekend softball tournament, Bob was exhausted and new symptoms came on — he coughed up blood. That’s when he and Lucy decided it was time to go the emergency room.
At Norton Audubon Hospital, Bob was immediately admitted. After a battery of tests and lab work, his physicians determined Bob was in end-stage heart failure. His heart was functioning at 10% of its normal capacity.
“I remember the doctor using the term ‘frighteningly low,’ and it was like a bolt of lightning, shock to us,” Lucy said. “Bob is healthy and active, how can this be happening?”
“We measure blood flow through ejection fraction, which is the amount of blood your heart is pumping out with each heartbeat,” said Kelly C. McCants, M.D., executive medical director of the Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program and executive director of the Institute for Health Equity, a Part of Norton Healthcare. “To put it in some perspective, the normal ejection fraction is 50% or higher. For Bob to be pumping out at only 10% was quiet alarming.”
For the next few months, Dr. McCants and the team treated Bob with medications, trying to improve his ejection fraction. But it was not working. Bob was experiencing “cardiac wasting,” meaning he had lost more than 40 pounds and his health was deteriorating. In January 2022, doctors told him he had six months to live — or he could consider an implantable left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that would keep his heart pumping on a battery pack. It would require him to be plugged into an electrical outlet or use a battery pack at all times. But the pump would keep his heart going at a normal ejection fraction.
The Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery Program is at the leading edge of rapid treatment advances.
By mid-February 2022, Bob had his LVAD implanted by Steven W. Etoch, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute, and he was on the mend. His heart was functioning at normal capacity, he was regaining some weight and participating in noncontact sports.
“I was limited to shooting pool and golf,” Bob said. “Life on the LVAD was cumbersome taking a battery pack everywhere, and I was restricted from swimming and strenuous activities; but I felt so much better.”
“Bob was doing great, and the LVAD could have carried him through life as a destination therapy,” said Bassel Alkhalil, M.D., heart failure cardiologist and medical director of mechanical support devices at Norton Heart & Vascular Institute. “But we knew Bob was a great candidate for a heart transplant, and living the rest of his life with the LVAD would be very limiting to a person who used to know no limits.”
Dr. Alkhalil and Srikanth Seethala, M.D., heart failure cardiologists at Norton Heart & Vascular Institute, consulted with the transplant team at UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute. Everyone was in agreement: Bob was an ideal candidate.
For Bob and Lucy, the risk was scary.
“The team prepares you for the worst. This is a dangerous operation; there are risks and complications,” Lucy said. “We had a lot to think about.”
In early November Bob decided he was going to list himself for transplant. With Bob being over 6 feet tall, the transplant team prepared him that there could be a significant wait. Finding a donor is a challenge, let alone a male donor similar to his body build. But as fate would have it, Bob got the call that he has a donor heart just nine days into his wait.
“I was shocked. We were shocked, the transplant team at UK was shocked and the heart failure team at Norton was shocked,” Bob said. “We had three hours to drop everything and rush to Lexington for a surgery that would forever change my life.”
Two weeks after his transplant in November 2022, Bob left UK HealthCare with a new heart. He has slowly started returning to the sports he enjoys and is working out five days a week, three of those days at cardiac rehabilitation at Norton Audubon Hospital. He follows up with the transplant team at UK HealthCare as well as with the Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure & Recovery program. Everyone is amazed by his progress.
“We’re honored to be a part of Bob’s journey,” said Navin Rajagopalan, MD, director of UK HealthCare’s Gill Heart and Vascular Institute Affiliate Network. “Patients do better when they get the care they need close to home. Our partnership with Norton Heart & Vascular Institute through the Gill Network is vital to providing patients with that care. We’re working closely with Bob’s team at Norton to ensure he has the best possible start to his new life.”
Bob is forever grateful to the heart donor’s family.
“Their gift of a loved one’s organs changed my life forever,” Bob said. “I had six months to live, and now I have my life ahead of me because of their sacrifice.” As part of the recipient process, Bob is writing a letter to thank the donor’s family. He and Lucy hope to meet the family someday.
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