Thanks to a life-saving cardiac implant procedure at Westchester Medical Center, Dave Gray was able to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding in Florida this past July.
The cardiology team at Westchester Medical Center helped a local man get back on his feet — and escort his daughter down the aisle.
By Debra Bresnan
Dave Gray was a self-described workaholic. As a procurement specialist at Owens Corning in Albany, the 52-year-old worked 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. But one day he was forced to slow down. In September 2010, Gray began having trouble breathing and thought it was just allergies. He went to his family doctor and was admitted to a hospital near his home where he stayed for 15 days. He was diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that causes it to become enlarged, thick or rigid, and was put on medication. Gray continued to work for about three months until he was put on disability.
The following spring, Gray’s cardiologist put an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) in place to regulate his heart rhythm. By early autumn 2015, Dave’s condition had further degraded – he was experiencing weakness and dizziness in addition to his breathing difficulties – and his doctor referred him for advanced therapies. He selected Westchester Medical Center (WMC), the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), because it was closer to home and he had heard good things about the reputation of WMC’s cardiac services.
Dave scheduled an appointment with Chhaya Aggarwal, MD, Advanced Heart Failure & Transplant Cardiologist at WMC, who conducted stress tests, ordered a catherization and changed his medication. “She actually called me at home to see how I was doing,” Gray says. “I’ve never had a doctor do that before.”
Between November 2015 and March 2016, Gray remained at WMC because of difficulty breathing, weakness and the declining state of his heart. Masashi Kai, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at WMC, provided interim support as Gray awaited transplant.
Initially, medications and IV therapies helped maintain Gray’s heart function, but he still grew sicker. At the end of January 2016, Dr. Kai surgically inserted an Intra Aortic Balloon Pump through Dave’s shoulder, another temporary solution.
“Most often, these pumps are inserted via the groin, and patients must remain in bed, but shoulder placement is very rare and requires a special surgical team,” says Dr. Kai. “Shoulder placement allowed Dave to get out of bed and walk.”
A month later, Dave was unable to breathe on his own and experienced severe heart failure. Dr. Kai inserted a life-sustaining device — an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) pump — as a bridge to transplant. By March 4, Dave was once again in crisis, and Dr. Kai performed open-heart surgery to implant a left ventricular assist device (LVAD).
Life with LVAD
The LVAD is a surgically implanted, battery-powered pump for patients with end-stage heart failure. It’s an effective interim solution for patients awaiting a heart transplant and also provides long-term support for those who aren’t transplant candidates. While many patients who are diagnosed with cardiomyopathy must restrict their activities or even remain hospitalized, most people with an LVAD live at home, enjoy favorite activities, return to work and school, and many may even shower or drive a car with approval.
The East Greenbush, NY, father of two — who married his high school sweetheart 37 years ago — had one major activity in mind: flying to Naples, Florida, in July to walk his daughter down the aisle.
“The LVAD made it possible for Dave to be by his daughter’s side, walking her down the aisle on the happiest day of her life,” says Dr. Aggarwal. “We all want him to see his grandkids. We recently upgraded his status and moved him up on the transplant list. I hope he’ll get his new heart in about a month.”
Teamwork makes the difference
Nurse Practitioner Christina Hahn is part of a WMC team of medical professionals focused on heart-failure management, from evaluating patients for advanced therapies like LVAD to listing them for transplants and throughout recovery following surgery. “LVAD allows you to get your life back when you’re very sick. Now, Mr. Gray is home every day,” says Hahn. “He’s an inspiration to all of us who cared for him. Patients like him make my job worth doing.
“Our team follows the same patients all the time, so every day in the hospital or every time he comes for an appointment, he sees me,” she continues. “Patients feel more comfortable talking with the same people each time, and I like it a lot, too,” says Hahn. “This team approach is special; it’s different from other places I’ve worked.”
While waiting for his new heart, Gray says, “I’m not complaining about anything. My life has changed back to normal; it’s nothing like a year ago.” Now, Gray keeps busy tending to his new beehives, and canning fruits and vegetables, an avocation he learned from his mother.
“I’m riding my stationary bike every day. When walking uphill, I have to stop and take a breather for 30 to 40 seconds, but I couldn’t do that for the past two years,” Gray says. “Before the LVAD, I couldn’t even make myself a sandwich.”
“I love going to see Dr. Aggarwal and Christina and look forward to our monthly visits,” he adds. “Everyone was so nice to me.”
Cardiac Care at WMCHealth
WMCHealth’s Heart and Vascular Institute provides comprehensive, integrated cardiac care throughout the WMCHealth Network, focusing on providing world-class care close to home. Learn more at www.westchestermedicalcenter.com/heart.
Just three days after being interviewed for this story, Dave Gray was finishing up a canning project — spicy pickles for Christina Hahn and Dr. Aggarwal — when Hahn called to say, “We have a heart for you. Could you come to WMC?” Gray says, “Right away, I thought about the donor and how lucky I am to be receiving this gift.”
“All heart transplant surgeries are performed on an emergency basis,” Dr. Kai says. “Dave came to the hospital, and the next day, August 20, he underwent transplant surgery.” The surgery, which was conducted by David Spielvogel, MD, and Ramin Malekan, MD, took about eight hours, with no complications.
Gray was discharged from Westchester Medical Center on September 14, escorted to the hospital’s front door by Dr. Aggarwal and Christina Hahn. He is home and recovering well.
“I never knew I would feel this good again,” says Gray. “I’m looking forward to being home and getting into my work-out program. And my kids will get me some bushels of tomatoes at the end of September, so I can finish up canning sauce for the year.”