Monday, Feb. 24, 2014
Albert Kurtyka was ready to leave the hospital for the first time in 50 days.
As the automatic doors at VCU Medical Center slid open, the 34-year-old breathed in the crisp February afternoon. The donated heart pumping blood to his lungs had only been in his body for 10 days, and fresh air was one of the “little things” Albert knew he would never again take for granted.
"He’s going to have some bad days and some good days,” said Diane Kurtyka, Albert’s mother. “There will be emotional days and you just have to try to not get too overwhelmed with it, and you have to learn to truly live life every day.”
Diane spoke from experience. Two years ago she had walked through the same hospital doors with a donated heart of her own.
Diane and Albert have faced similar but not identical struggles. Each of their hearts, failing at a premature age, reached a point at which it could no longer span the divide that lay between itself and a transplanted donor heart. Albert’s divide lasted for 40 days, Diane’s for more than 60, but in the end both reached the other side – both found a bridge.
A bridge to transplant
Diane and Albert are the 59th and 75th patients, respectively, to be implanted with the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart at VCU. This is the only artificial heart approved as a bridge to human heart transplant for patients dying from end-stage biventricular failure. It provides immediate, safe blood flow through both ventricles.
The VCU Pauley Heart Center was the first on the East Coast to implant the device.
Vigneshwar Kasirajan, M.D., chairman of the Division of Cadiothoracic Surgery, VCU Pauley Heart Center, has been instrumental in establishing VCU as one of the most comprehensive heart failure and device programs in the United States.
“The Total Artificial Heart is very important technology for saving lives of patients with very severe heart failure,” he said. “With the availability of this technology at VCU, we have been able to achieve excellent outcomes to transplant in this very ill population and restore quality of life.”
Albert’s road to becoming VCU’s 75th Total Artificial Heart patient is one that illustrates the lifesaving power of the device.
After experiencing extreme fatigue and shortness of breath in 2013, Albert was diagnosed at a hospital in Newport News with cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the heart muscle.
Keyur Shah, M.D., assistant professor in the VCU Pauley Heart Center and a heart failure specialist, was in touch with Albert’s physicians in Newport News because he had treated Diane at VCU. They determined on Oct. 31 that Albert should be transferred to VCU.
“Albert arrived and it was clear he didn’t have very good blood flow to his body, his blood pressure was narrow and he had extensive clots,” Shah said.
Time and gradual medications sometimes help cardiomyopathy, Shah said, and Albert was treated for several weeks and allowed to go home with a defibrillator vest. His condition worsened again though, and he was taken back to VCU on Dec. 17.
Within days it became apparent that Albert needed an urgent full heart replacement implantation.
“He had severe dysfunction of both ventricles,” Shah said. “We determined that the most effective way to bridge to transplant was total heart replacement rather than heart assistance.”
The Total Artificial Heart carried Albert through Christmas – which he celebrated with his family in the hospital – until doctors found a donor.
“A lot of people don’t think about it, but once you have someone in your family who needs a donor it really drives it in,” Diane said. “We want people to see what organ donors have done, they saved our lives. We wouldn’t be sitting here today without them.”
Diane needed her Total Artificial Heart and eventual heart transplant because of a virus she battled earlier in life. She recovered well from the procedures and said she feels far better today than she did before the transplant.
Albert said he also feels better than he did before he came to the hospital, and his recovery has been speedy.
Albert was off his ventilator one day after receiving the new heart, and he was walking within a few days.
Shah explained that the Total Artificial Heart had a lot to do with the fast recovery because it allowed Albert to recover from heart failure for 40 days while he waited for the new heart.
It is not uncommon for a mother and son to both have heart complications, Shah said. “But it is extraordinary to hear that both a mother and son needed a bridge to transplant. We’re all very grateful about the results and look forward to excellent long-term well-being.”
Another reason for Albert’s swift recovery, as well as for his ability to fight through five months of treatment, is Diane.
“When she was in her ordeal I would say it was a learning curve for both of us, but as soon as I started having my problems I had her to turn to,” Albert said. “Just to have someone who has been through it and knows kind of what to expect and what is coming is huge. It took a big load off of me.
“When you can talk to your mother about a procedure and she gives you guidance and support and strength, what else do you have to worry about? It put me at ease almost every time I had any doubts about anything.”
Diane was happy to be there for her son, but it wasn’t easy.
“It’s harder for me to see him go through this than it was to go through it myself,” she said. “When something affects your children it hits you more. He’s a lot younger; he has a young family.”
Albert and his wife, Leora, have three children. Family time is one of the “big things” Albert said he will never again take for granted in his new life.
“I feel like I’m a great father and a great husband,” he said. “But going through this moment where you’re on the verge of losing your life and you get a second chance, you want to do everything better.”
Artificial and donor hearts connected Albert to these renewed opportunities, and Diane to hers, but their shared experiences connected them to each other in a way few mothers and sons ever will be – both ready for that first step from the hospital, that first breath of fresh air, and all that will follow.
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