Jazz Musician, Nazareth Professor Enjoys Life Again Thanks to Artificial Heart Device

Jun. 13, 2010

At one point last year, Pittsford resident and Nazareth College music professor Paul Smoker just wished to live through the end of the semester. His heart was failing and he was ineligible for a cardiac transplant.

“I was grading my student’s papers in my hospital bed,” Smoker said. “Hey, life goes on, you know?”

Over the previous eight years, Smoker’s progressive heart failure had made his hobby as a freelance jazz trumpet player impossible, and made daily tasks, such as walking across the parking lot, an exhausting chore.

“Everything was getting harder to do,” he recalled. “I just didn’t have the energy. And my cardiologist told me if I went on dialysis I might not be strong enough to ever come off.”

This scenario isn’t uncommon. With heart disease ranked as the No. 1 killer in the United States, 50,000 to 100,000 Americans find themselves in need of an alternative treatment for heart failure every year.

Smoker’s case, and many like him, is often fatal. But in January the FDA approved the HeartMate II, a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) for long-term use in patients with advanced-stage heart failure who are not eligible to receive a transplant.

The LVAD is a battery-operated pump that is connected to the left ventricle of the heart and pumps oxygenated blood from the lungs throughout the body. The University of Rochester Medical Center was a leader in the national clinical trial for the HeartMate II that led to its FDA approval and currently URMC’s Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation is the only provider of the device in upstate New York.

“The HeartMate II used as a long-term therapy gives us another way to improve the quality of life for heart failure patients, and to provide them with extra time they may not have had otherwise,” said Leway Chen, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Program in Heart Failure and Transplantation.

In April 2009, Smoker’s cardiologist suggested implanting the HeartMate II in Smoker. “It was the difference between being here in a year and being 6 feet under, that was the biggest thing,” Smoker said. “The decision was not hard.”

A year after his device was implanted, Smoker is able to return to a normal life, out of bed and out of the hospital.

“I got a new lease on life,” Smoker said. “I feel very lucky, and better than I ever did before. I can do all the things I want to do again.”

As well as crossing the parking lot to return to work, Smoker has also picked up his trumpet again and has an upcoming show with his local band, Notet. The jazz quartet will be playing at the Bop Shop in Village Gates Square on July 1.