L. Walton Jr. thought it was just a really nasty cold. But, it hung on
for such a long time - about a month - that he decided to visit
the doctor. Little did he suspect that appointment in late 2004 would
change his life in a major way.
Waltonís story takes him from being a
guy who never paid much attention to his personal health to being
someone who had to constantly monitor and evaluate his condition. He
has gone from being a man close to death to one who, thanks to medical
science, should live a long, healthy life.
During a doctor visit for his lingering
"cold," Walton learned that he not only had pneumonia, but
also that his heart was enlarged and he had a heart arrhythmia.
Despite ongoing and numerous attempts
to improve his health, he became progressively sicker. He couldnít
breathe and was taking medications that werenít really helping, he
relates. It was determined that a viral infection resulting from the
pneumonia had attacked his heart. "My heart got bad enough that
they implanted a defibrillator in May of í05," the Milwaukee
The week after the implant, he
recollects that "it fired off two or three times," which
sent him to the hospital. For the next year, he was frequently ill and
made numerous visits to the doctor and hospital.
In July 2006 while at the doctor for a
lingering stomachache, the defibrillator fired again, landing the
43-year-old in the hospital for three months.
That incident led to his physicianís
decision in September 2006 to implant a left ventricular assist device
(LVAD) in the father of two daughters, Kelli, 21, and Angel, 12.
"I was a really sick guy," Walton recalls. "I was on my
death bed. The LVAD saved my life."
Knowledge of this technology being a
lifesaver has spread due to pop culture. It was the method by which
Denny, a character on the popular TV show, "Greyís
Anatomy," was kept alive while awaiting his heart transplant.
The American Heart Association Web site
says: "A common type of LVAD has a tube that pulls blood from the
left ventricle into a pump. The pump then sends blood into the aorta.
This effectively helps the weakened ventricle. The pump is placed in
the upper part of the abdomen. Another tube attached to the pump is
brought out of the abdominal wall to the outside of the body and
attached to the pumpís battery and control system."
Walton wore a backpack that housed the
unit and an apparatus to carry the batteries that operated the pump.
Dr. Alfred Nicolosi, a cardiothoracic
surgeon and member of the Medical College of Wisconsin faculty
practicing at Froedtert Hospital, says the LVAD provides doctors with
a way to keep chronically ill people alive until there is a heart that
is an appropriate transplant. "If we just wait without using
this," he explains, "the patientís condition will
deteriorate and heíll become so ill that he wonít be able to get
the transplant. This keeps him alive and improves the quality of his
life while heís waiting."
Nicolosi says without the LVAD
technology, Waltonís condition "would have kept getting worse
and forced us to take a heart that was not optimal for him."
In preparation for receiving the LVAD,
a patient must understand what living with the unit entails. Acording
to Rosemary Wagner, RN, manager of case management and social services
at Froedtert Hospital, "Itís not just training the patient, but
the doctor, hospital staff and family all have to work as a team for
this to be successful."
In addition to preparing the patient
and his family, Wagner says the community needs to be readied.
"Weeks prior to the patient receiving the LVAD, we do a home
assessment to make sure the electrical in the house is up to code and
there are no issues we can see," she says.
"The number one contact we make is
the electric company," she says. "We tell them the patient
has this and requires that his home is on the top of the list for
service if the power goes out."
After implantation, "Patients can
resume life as normal if their physician OKís it," Wagner
shares. "They are asked not to drive, though, because if they
were to be in an accident and the airbag would deploy, it would put a
tremendous amount of pressure on their chest."
After receiving the LVAD, Waltonís
heart was assisted in beating consistently and regularly. His weight
climbed back closer to normal and his blood pressure became more
stable. But, more importantly, Walton was able to resume a more normal
life. "I was able to get out and go places," he shares.
"I was only in the hospital once since I got it and that was just
because it was beating fast."
Thatís not to say there were not
hindrances. The mechanics of the device make a constant sound - the
"whoosh-whoosh" sound of a beating heart that can be heard
by all around. The noise kept Walton from activities ike going to the
movies and church because the noise would be a distraction.
Prior to the implant, Walton knew the
LVAD was just a temporary measure to get him to the next big step - a heart transplant.
In February 2007, Walton had been on
the heart transplant wait list for nearly five months. Heíd had a
couple of calls with hope that it might be his chance to receive a new
heart, but the match wasnít exact enough. Although the Milwaukee man
knew that someone else would have to die for him to continue living,
he says he prayed for God to help him and the donorís family accept
that. So, until the call came, Robert waited - as patiently as he
could - for his healthy heart.
Due to a decrease in donor hearts, the
number of heart transplants today is less than it was eight years ago.
Nicolosi says some people feel donating a heart is a "waste of
time." But, he says that donor heart can help extend another life
and enrich that personís health. "It is a way to possibly keep
a part of their loved one alive for another 10 years or more," he
On Feb. 15, Walton went to the ER for
dizzy spells. He was admitted on Friday and kept over the weekend. By
Monday afternoon, he was feeling better and sent home. About 9:30 that
night, the phone rang. "It was the implant team," he
relates. "They said not to get too anxious, but that they might
have a heart. I was supposed to get right over there."
The heart proved to be a match and
Walton was scheduled for surgery. In a procedure that took just over
nine hours, including two hours to remove his LVAD, a healthy heart
from a 27-year-old woman was transplanted in him.
"After two days, I woke up,"
he relates, "and I knew I was intubated and I remembered
something had happened. Then I saw my mom and I realized that I had
made it through surgery and had a new heart."
The surgery was very successful. The
only side effect is that he lost some movement and feeling in his left
foot, but physical therapy is helping him regain foot function.
Just days after surgery, Walton sits in
his hospital bed and says the reality of having a healthy heart
"hasnít hit me yet." But, he is already looking forward to
what life without his mechanical LVAD will mean. "I donít miss
the noise of that one little bit," he says with a big smile.
"But, it is awfully quiet at night and the quiet makes me wonder
why it isnít working. Then I remember that I donít need it
Walton is looking forward to driving
once again and planning for his family reunion in Atlanta this summer.
"Itís going to be great to wear clothes that I can tuck in and
go to church in a suit again," he shares. "I will be able to
go places without a time limit. I can go to the movies again."
Walton says the constant support of his
family and friends was crucial in his time of illness. "My mom
has been there through it all," he says. "She has done more
than a person could ever think possible. I wouldnít have made it
He also sings the praises of his
medical team: "They are the best cardiology team there can ever
be. Iím not just saying this because Iím doing so well. They were
so professional throughout the whole process. I was never in the dark.
I always knew what was going on and I always knew what my alternatives
were." He says some of his decisions were "hard," but
his medical team supported his choices.
Walton resumed life at full tilt upon
his release from the hospital. "He got out and just couldnít
sit down or calm down," laughs his mother, Esther. "The
first thing I did was go to my cousinís bar and eat. I also met up
with a bunch of my guys at the bowling alley," he relates.
Walton had the opportunity to meet the
grandmother of the young woman whose heart he received. "Meeting
her was such an experience," he remarks. "Itís so hard to
explain. She really wanted to see me and touch me. She wanted to hear
her granddaughterís heart beating. She laid her head on my chest and
Walton encourages those who are able to
consider organ donation. "If I could, I would donate every organ
in my body," he shares.
Walton says heís a changed man after
all of his travails. "There were things that I took for granted
before that I donít take for granted now," he explains.
"Itís so nice to get up and feel good. Iím even anxious to
get out and do yard work! Iím going to try to do things differently
now and live life day by day."