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A Renewed Life for Tom F. After a Damaging Heart Attack

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Tom Found a Second Chance at the Temple Heart & Vascular Institute

On May 1, 2021, Tom F. drove himself to the hospital, thinking he had a bad case of the flu.

It wasn’t the flu. Tom was having a massive heart attack. He was quickly transferred to a university hospital close to home in Iowa, where his heart stopped beating for five minutes before its rhythm could be restored. Afterward, only one-third of his heart was left undamaged.

Before that day, he had no history of heart problems. His family didn’t either. His only health condition was high blood pressure, which was well controlled.

“I was riding my bike 15 miles a day and would snorkel for an hour afterwards,” says the Iowa City resident, who was 73 at the time.

The cardiac specialists treating Tom said the only option to save his life was to have an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) implanted in his chest. It would pump blood out of his heart and into his circulatory system. A heart transplant was another possible solution, but Tom was older than the age 70 limit on heart transplant at most centers.

So Tom said yes to the LVAD and had the device installed on his 42nd wedding anniversary, May 12, 2021.

“The ‘pro’ is that the LVAD saved my life,” he says. “The ‘con’ is that I wasn’t living the life I wanted to live. I had to be on blood thinners. I couldn’t swim or be around water. I couldn't ride my bike. I had to wear 10 pounds of external batteries outside my body and stay plugged in at night. I had to have electricity 24/7. I was attached to a 40-foot cord.”

The decision to go for a new heart

Tom has been a hard worker all his life. He spent his first 25 years in laser printer sales for IBM and Kodak, followed by 15 years in residential real estate sales.

“I started working when I was 10 years old and worked my way through high school and college,” he says. “I became fairly successful. My plan was to retire and spend time in Cozumel, Mexico, right on the water where I swim and snorkel; stay at our home at Lake Okoboji in Iowa; and spend six months in Iowa City for the football season.”

At the time of his heart attack, he hadn’t yet retired to pursue those goals. After the LVAD implant, he realized the only way to live those dreams was to have a heart transplant.

Finding a transplant program

Over the following months, Tom worked with his local university hospital cardiologist to find a transplant program that would accept him. It was a tough search. Most centers limit transplants to people up to age 70, and Tom was 73 at the time.

His cardiologist sent his case to five different heart transplant programs around the country.

“Four turned me down,” Tom says.

But one did not. That was Temple’s Heart Transplant Program, which accepts patients older than 70. Temple’s expertise and experience treating high-risk heart-transplant patients — and history of outstanding outcomes — means patients who have been turned down by other transplant centers due to their age or health conditions may find a second chance at Temple.

As Tom puts it, “It’s an A-team, a World Series team.”

After initial testing in Iowa City, Tom and his wife, Alice, flew to Philadelphia for two more days of tests and to be interviewed.

While the Temple team focused on his health and suitability for the surgery, Tom was impressed by Temple’s expertise and results.

Temple has some of the best heart transplant outcomes in the Greater Philadelphia region and around the country. 85% of patients who receive a transplant are living with a functioning heart one year after the procedure. The program also has a reputation for shorter time-to-transplant for waitlist candidates — 70% of patients receive a donor heart within one year, compared to a national average of 55%.

In addition, Temple’s eligibility criteria are broader than most. Patients who have been turned down for transplantation at other centers may be eligible at Temple.

In Tom’s case, his prior good health and exercise discipline was a plus. Throughout his life, he’d worked out regularly. His “health plan,” he says, was to go to the gym instead of going out to drink with the guys after work.

“There’s nothing better than exercise to take care of stress and get relaxed,” he notes. “After you’re done, all those endorphins that come out of exercise, they make you feel wonderful.”

Tom, Alice and the Temple team worked together to complete testing and evaluation quickly, completing necessary testing and review in less than one month, to see if he qualified to get on the donor heart list.

“The vetting process was very, very thorough,” Tom says. “It gave me security that I could put my life in their hands without any questions because they were so detailed.”

A tight timeline and a move to Philly

After reviewing Tom’s case, the Temple’s transplant program team, led by Eman A. Hamad, MD, gave the green light for Tom to be put on the transplant list.

At the end of June 2022, Tom and Alice flew to Philadelphia. They moved into The Gift of Life Howie’s House, a nonprofit that provides an affordable home away from home to transplant patients and their families from outside the Philadelphia area. It would be Tom and Alice’s home following the transplant.

“The Gift of Life Howie’s House, along with Dr. Hamad’s team, was instrumental in our decision to come to Philadelphia because they give total support to transplant families,” Tom says. “They do God’s work, no question about it.”

The facility provides housing, meals, a workout room, a library, a game room, and shuttle bus service to the hospital.

A short wait, then some great care

“I got on the donor heart list on July 1,” Tom remembers. “The call came 10 days after, on July 11 at 3 a.m., saying they had a heart for me. I immediately said yes. They told me to get to the hospital at 7:30 a.m.”

The nine-hour transplant operation was led by Temple surgeon Yoshiya Toyoda, MD. The LVAD and the damaged heart were removed, and Tom was given a new heart.

After that, Tom stayed in the cardiac ICU for a few weeks before moving to a regular room while the medical team kept a close eye on him and his new heart. After he was released, he returned to The Gift of Life Howie’s House.

“I can’t say enough about Dr. Hamad’s team,” Tom says.

Tom F. exercising on treadmill after his heart transplant

There’s no question in my mind that these people are on the top of their game. I did not have any hesitation. The nurses were great. The facility was great.

Tom F.

Working his way back home — and to Cozumel

In his regular cardiac rehab sessions, he’s regaining his balance, stamina, and strength — and he no longer has the LVAD batteries and cords to carry around. Since the transplant, he’s lost 40 pounds, dropping from 210 to 170, basically returning to his old high school weight.

Tom and his wife — Saint Alice, as he calls her — will stay in Philadelphia until July of 2023 under the watchful eye of the Temple heart transplant team.

At the date of this story’s publishing, Tom is the oldest person to receive a heart transplant at Temple.

Tom’s looking forward to a future that returns to long bike rides, swimming, and snorkeling in the crystal turquoise waters off the beach in Cozumel, driven by his new heart.

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