Westchester Medical Center Health Network recently performed the 200th heart transplant at its WMCHealth Heart and Vascular Institute. Three of those patients share their stories.
By Debra Bresnan
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing 335,002 men and 298,840 women in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 1 in every 4 deaths.
The best way to treat end-stage heart disease is transplant, says David Spielvogel, MD, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery and Surgical Director for Heart Transplantation at Westchester Medical Center, the flagship of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth). “Westchester Medical Center’s patient-survival rates at one year and three years after transplant are above the national average, and median wait times are shorter than at other hospitals in our region,” Dr. Spielvogel says. “Since the program’s inception, we have completed more than 200 transplants.”
Westchester Medical Center’s heart failure program offers the latest care for congestive heart failure treatments, including tailored therapy, investigational medications, surgical procedures, mechanical support and heart transplants.
Alan Gass, MD, FACC, Medical Director of Cardiac Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support at Westchester Medical Center, attributes this track record to a wealth of experience, amounting to more than 100 years of combined transplant experience among the surgeons, cardiologists and other team members. This extraordinary, multidisciplinary team offers a uniquely personal touch, as well. “We have more patient interaction, which pushes us to do as much as we can for them,” Dr. Gass says. “We see who they are; they’re human beings, not just patients.”
Nearly 10,000 New Yorkers are on a nationwide waiting list of more than 118,000 people who need an organ transplant. An average of 22 people die each day in the United States from causes that could have been treated with a donated organ.
“Our greatest limiting factor is the number of suitable donors,” says Dr. Spielvogel. “It’s really important that more New Yorkers consent to organ donation.”
Here, three women share how the heart transplant team at Westchester Medical Center gave them a new chance at life.
Kelly Krzyzak, 48
On February 5, 2015, Kelly Krzyzak was cutting out Valentine’s Day hearts with a coworker at Little Lambs nursery school when she began to feel uncomfortable and not like herself. She went home, where she experienced chest pains and vomiting before being taken by ambulance to a local hospital. She was stabilized there, then airlifted to Westchester Medical Center the following day.
Krzyzak had suffered a heart attack, after which she suffered two strokes and consequently slipped into a coma, even though she’d had no prior issues or risk factors. “I don’t remember anything from the time I went into the catheter lab until I woke up, about 12 days later, at Westchester Medical Center with a left ventricular assist device (LVAD),” she says. This battery-powered pump is implanted in patients with end-stage heart failure and is an effective solution for patients awaiting transplant. “I wore it until I received a phone call for my heart 13 months later.”
Krzyzak and her husband of 25 years, Donovan, are the parents of a 23-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son. Kelly’s mother helped out with cooking and cleaning while she waited for her new heart. “I was very weak and, because of the stroke, couldn’t move my right arm,” says Krzyzak.
Following a successful heart transplant on March 12, 2016, Krzyzak is back to full function. “I look at things differently. I definitely don’t sweat the small stuff,” she says.
“I absolutely cannot say enough good things about the doctors, nurses, heart coordinators and everyone at Westchester Medical Center,” says Krzyzak. “They’re all wonderful.”
Barbara Gorczynski, age 76
In 2000, Barbara Gorczynski retired after working for New York State for 27 years. Two years later, she married her second husband, John, blending their families, which include nine children, as well as numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. “God gave me my second chance,” she says of her marriage. “We do everything together.”
Then, in 2012, Gorcyznski began having serious breathing problems. “I could only get through half a dance with my husband; I’d have to sit down.” After about a year, her doctor sent her to Westchester Medical Center, hopeful she might receive a new heart valve, but her heart had deteriorated so much that Alan Gass, MD, FACC, Medical Director of Cardiac Transplantation and Mechanical Circulatory Support at Westchester Medical Center, placed her on the transplant list instead. She was hospitalized at Westchester Medical Center for seven months prior to receiving her new heart, on December 9, 2014. “The last couple of days, I didn’t think I was going to make it, but then they called me at 8:45 p.m. the night before and said they’d found a perfect match.
“It’s fabulous there, and I don’t think I would have made it through those seven months without Dr. Gass and transplant coordinators Kathy Brown and Maureen Raffa. The nurses treated me like family.”
Now, Gorcyznski is back to bowling, dancing the night away and enjoying all that life has to offer, including travel and family gatherings. “I’m a lucky, lucky person.”
Maria Quizhpi, 26
The first American-born child of Ecuadorian immigrants, Maria Quizhpi needed blood transfusions for the first several years of her life to treat a rare blood disorder, and had her spleen and gallbladder removed by age 5. Though the frequency of blood transfusions decreased over time, health issues remained a constant. “I’ve been sick all my life and was always lethargic,” she says. “But my immune system was getting stronger, and, when I was 19, I had my last blood transfusion.” She traveled to Japan, France, Italy and Spain and returned to the U.S. to work as a receptionist.
In April 2016, however, she experienced extreme shortness of breath and could barely stay upright at her job. Her mother insisted she go to Westchester Medical Center. “The walls of my heart had become so thin that my heart doubled in size. The doctors told us that getting an LVAD should help and that they would put me on the list for a heart transplant,” she recalls. Eight months later, Quizhpi got her new heart, with the help of cardiologist Chhaya Aggarwal, MD.
“Now, I have more energy, and I can play with my nieces. When I had the LVAD, I wasn’t able to drive, so now just going to the store feels like freedom. I feel blessed, because a lot of people are still waiting for their heart,” she says.
“The nurses at Westchester Medical Center make you feel at home. They care; they sit with you; and now, when I go back for appointments, I visit them. Dr. Aggarwal and everyone — in ICU, in recovery, even the housekeeping team — is there to help.”
To learn more about the heart transplant program at Westchester Medical Center, call 914.493.7632.
FEATURE PHOTOS (LEFT TO RIGHT) BY TERESA HORGAN, JOHN HALPERN, AND KENNETH GABRIELSEN