Buffalo man relies on faith, family as he awaits heart transplant

November 25, 2003

Billy delValle identifies himself as many things. He is a devout Christian, a devoted son and parent, a construction company employee, and a musician who has played for years in jazz and blues bands at clubs around Buffalo. He also is a heart transplant patient, waiting for a donor organ to become available so he can live.

The 46-year-old Hamburg resident was placed on the heart transplant waiting list at Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital in June. He had been diagnosed with an enlarged heart in the 1980s but doctors had been treating it successfully with medications. Early this year, though, he began having difficulty breathing, particularly in the cold weather, a result of his enlarged heart having to work harder.

“I was shocked, really, when they told me I needed a transplant,” delValle says. “I thought I was healthy as a horse. They told me I suffered from congestive heart failure and that I had ventricular tachycardia, which means my heart’s rhythm is off.”

Doctors at Strong Memorial implanted a defibrillator in delValle’s chest to ensure his heart rhythm remains at an optimum rate. His heart also is enlarged and weak as a result of his congestive heart failure, says Leway Chen, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.C., medical director for the Strong Health Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation.

“We’re monitoring him while he waits for a transplant, working closely with his doctors in Buffalo, Dr. Gary Stern of Cardiology Group of Western New York and Dr. Gabriel Cortes,” Chen says.

“Billy’s pretty sick but, despite his situation, he has retained an optimistic attitude,” he adds. “If anything, he tends to downplay his illness. He has an amazing sense of humor that the entire transplant team appreciates, and that positive outlook can only benefit his health before and after transplant.”

There is no way to know when a donor heart may become available, Chen says. Some Strong Memorial patients waited just a few months after being added to the transplant list, and others waited for several years. It depends on how sick patients are, and if an appropriate heart is donated. Organs are matched to potential patients primarily by size and blood type.

The shortage of donor organs nationally makes it difficult to perform the number of transplants needed in Rochester and throughout the nation, Chen adds. There are about 3,500 patients waiting for new hearts in the United States, about 360 in New York state.

So delValle is treated aggressively with medications and monitored closely by his doctors as he waits for his hospital-assigned pager to sound off, alerting him to a donor organ meant for him.

“My biggest frustration is not being as active as I was,” he says. He is on disability from Aladdin Development and Construction while he awaits transplantation, and can’t play basketball or tennis or perform regularly with a band. His doctors do allow him to play his drums periodically and sing, as long as he doesn’t “overdo it,” he says.

The change in his lifestyle this year as a result of his heart problems has been difficult but delValle says he accepts it.

“As a Christian man, I’m always thankful for every day I have.”

He spends time with his 80-year-old mother and the rest of his large family – he has 11 brothers and sisters, a son, and a 2-year-old granddaughter, Trinity. They keep his spirits up and provide a strong support network. He also regularly attends the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church on Route 20, another source of great strength for him.

“I can’t lie, I’m a little worried,” he says of the situation. “I don’t feel like I’m done here. I have so much more I need to do. But I’ve put it in God’s hands and he’ll do what is best. I have no doubt about that.”

The Strong Health Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation serves patients from across upstate New York and northern Pennsylvania. The first heart transplant in Rochester was performed in February 2001. As of mid-November 2003, 35 heart transplants had been performed. The program’s outcomes are 91 percent, surpassing transplant programs in New York City and Cleveland.

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Karin Christensen
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