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A heart tale
Transplant survivor tells touching story 
of hope, courage and second chances

By JULIE LARRIVEE

September 11, 2007

Robert 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 man says.

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 says.

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 anymore!"

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 without her."

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 just listened."

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."