“I can feel my new heart beating,” Louis Vacanti says as he places his hand on his chest. “I’m so grateful for everything I’ve received.”
The 35-year-old father received a heart transplant, thanks to a generous organ donor.
Doctors at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital performed the 10-hour surgery Dec. 23 and the Advanced Heart Failure team called it a “Christmas miracle.”
For seven years Vacanti endured declining heart function and found it was harder and harder to keep up with his young kids, work out at the gym, and spend time hunting and fishing. Cardiologists in Buffalo used a pacemaker and an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to support his heart. Eleven months ago, he was evaluated by Igor Gosev, M.D., and Sabu Thomas, M.D., M.Sc., of the UR Medicine Advanced Heart Failure team. They determined he urgently needed mechanical pumps when both sides of his heart rapidly failed.
Gosev, a cardiac transplant surgeon, implanted the ventricular assist devices, which maintained heart function until a new heart could be found. “I was focused on the long game. We decided to use the pumps as a bridge to preserve function of his kidneys and lungs.”
Strong Memorial Hospital is home to Upstate New York’s only comprehensive heart failure and transplant program. Since the first heart transplant in 2001, nearly 300 people received new hearts and more than 780 have received life-extending ventricular assist devices.
“Pretty important call”
Vacanti will often relive the moment he learned his struggle was coming to an end.
In the wee hours of Dec. 22, he was awakened by a phone’s ring and a nurse urged him to take the “pretty important call.” The Kenmore-Tonawanda school custodian learned the Advanced Heart Failure team identified a heart for him.
“The news was the light at the end of a tunnel,” Vacanti said. He called his wife, Alicia, and she quickly traveled 90 minutes from their Holland, Erie County, home to Strong Memorial to be by his side.
Waiting for transplantation surgery, Vacanti “experienced every emotion possible – happiness, fear, sadness, and hope – but I knew I was in good hands” with his transplant surgery team led by Gosev and including cardiac transplant surgeon Katherine Wood, M.D., and anesthesiologists Brandon Lebow, M.D., and Daniel Gross, M.D.
When he was ready for surgery, the nurses and staff on the heart transplant unit shared a round of applause as he was transported to the operating room
“That was a complete surprise and reminded me how lucky I am,” Vacanti said. His care team became like family, since only a few were able to see him, given the distance from home and limits on visitors due to the pandemic.
A new beginning
Vacanti’s first weeks of recovery were filled with plans to spend sunny days in their backyard swimming pool and a family vacation. “The kids deserve it. We all do. We need to go someplace great and just be together.”
It’s been too long since days were free of worry. At times he struggled to breathe. There were surgeries to implant a pacemaker, ICD and then the high-tech heart pump. In 2021, “it felt like I was in the hospital more than I was home.”
Days in the hospital were long and he missed his two children and his wife’s son, and feared he may not see them grow.
In March, during a moment dedicated to hope and faith for good days to come, the couple exchanged vows in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit.
“They’ve been through a lot of scary moments, but we got them through it,” said Thomas, his transplant cardiologist. “We’re able to provide comprehensive heart care, including specialized pumps and heart transplantation, which is a pinnacle of what we do for seriously ill patients who are in jeopardy.
Thomas will closely monitor his recovery and heart function moving forward.
Be a hero
Each transplant happens because an individual or family made the heroic decision to donate organs, providing the gift of life. There are nearly 8,500 people waiting for organ transplants in New York. That includes 540 waiting for new organs at Strong Memorial Hospital, 27 of them need hearts. Many will wait a long time, sometimes years, for transplantation surgery.
Register online to be an organ donor at passlifeon.org, or in person at the Department of Motor Vehicles.