North Tonawanda resident Rich Shepler is recovering at home after a life-saving heart transplant at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
H. Todd Massey, M.D., URMC cardiac transplant surgeon, performed the life-saving transplant July 27 at Strong Memorial Hospital. URMC is the only Upstate New York site hospital to offer heart transplants.
“It feels really good,” said Shepler, 30. “It takes a while to come back 100 percent, so we’re taking it slow.”
Massey expects Shepler to “enjoy many years to come because his new heart is great. As doctors, we get a lot of satisfaction when we see patients do well and know they have bright futures.”
Shepler was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a broad term that is used to describe a weakened heart muscle, as a teenager. His family endured a battery of heart tests after an aunt died from the disease at the age of 34.
He enjoyed a seemingly carefree life after the diagnosis, playing hockey in high school, attending Niagara County Community College, and working at the Buffalo packaging company RockTenn. Throughout those years, doctors at Buffalo Cardiology Group monitored him closely. However, his disease progressed and they recommended specialized care at URMC’s Program in Heart Failure and Transplant and Artificial Hearts, which is a key part of the Heart and Vascular Center.
URMC cardiologist Eugene Storozynsky, M.D., Ph.D., managed Shepler’s heart function medically. In spring 2011, Shepler returned from a family vacation feeling poorly and it was time to add him to the waiting list for a new heart. He was admitted to Strong. A short time later he developed a life-threatening heart arrhythmia and went into cardiogenic shock, which can cause organ failure.
Massey implanted two high-tech heart pumps, called ventricular assist devices (VADs), on both sides of his heart to maintain function. VADs are battery-operated pumps that keep a heart pumping steadily. Many times they are used as a bridge-to-transplant however, if a patient is not suitable for the transplant surgery, the VAD is the long-term treatment for heart failure.
Once Shepler’s organs and heart were stabilized, doctors were able to remove the right VAD, leaving the left VAD, also called a HeartMate II, connected to the left ventricle of the heart to pump oxygenated blood from the lungs throughout the body URMC is the only provider of these high-tech devices in Upstate New York and was a leader in the national clinical trial for the HeartMate II that led to its FDA approval in January 2010. Doctors are still studying the benefits of these devices.
The heart pump allowed him to safely return home, where he stayed a few months. But recurring tachycardia – or rapid heartbeat – required hospitalization again in January, and he stayed at Strong Memorial Hospital until the donor heart became available July 27.
“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 Storozynsky. “With Rich, we were able to have him become healthy again in anticipation of undergoing heart transplantation at a later time.”
He was hospitalized with arrhythmia in the summer of 2012 and then again for six months while he awaited the donor heart.
“I’m really lucky that a heart came to me and I’m grateful for the donation,” Shepler said.
He was not alone as he waited for a donor heart. There are more than 3,100 people awaiting heart transplants in the United States and that far exceeds the number of hearts available. Last year, there were 2,300 heart transplant performed.
Registering to become an organ donor is critical to helping save lives. To join the registry, go to www.donorrecovery.org.