In February, as Valentine's Day comes and goes, reminding everyone to "have a heart," many of us take that simple biological fact for granted. But for 53-year-old Rick Elliott, it's a huge deal. Elliott, a Lexington resident, has been living without a heart for a year now, and waits patiently for the day when an appropriate donor heart is found for him.
Elliott, who has no prior history of heart problems, first fell ill in November 2011. He developed bronchitis and pneumonia that persisted throughout the holiday season.
His health worsened, and he was admitted to St. Joseph Hospital on Jan. 25 of last year. Doctors there determined that he had suffered damage to his heart, and referred him to UK HealthCare for consideration of treatment options.
Dr. Navin Rajagopalan, medical director of cardiac transplantation, examined Elliott and determined that his heart was far too damaged to salvage with a ventricular assist device (VAD) — he needed a complete heart transplant, immediately. However, donor hearts are hard to come by, and the uncertain waiting period for a new heart posed a problem.
"Rick probably could have survived an immediate heart transplant, but it can take weeks, months, or even years to find an appropriate donor heart," Rajagopalan said. "He was too sick to wait."
On Feb. 29, 2012, Elliott's damaged heart was removed and he received a SynCardia Total Artificial Heart (TAH) as a bridge to transplant. Elliott became only the second patient to receive the Syncardia TAH in Kentucky, just two weeks after 20-year-old patient Zack Poe.
The TAH is a device that contains the same components as a real human heart, and for patients who have end-stage biventricular failure — like Elliott — the only options are an immediate donor human heart or a TAH as a bridge to transplant. He also received the Freedom Driver, a wearable, portable device that powers the Total Artificial Heart, allowing him the mobility to walk around and leave the hospital.
Elliott was officially placed on the transplant list on June 1, 2012. He went home to wait on his transplant, but when he began retaining fluid, he returned to UK for evaluation. Ultimately, due to his family's work schedules, he decided to stay at UK so he could remain under surveillance should anything happen that would require medical assistance.
It's been one full year since Elliott's heart was removed — and he says he's never felt better. He's just waiting on that perfect donor heart to come through.
"I'm healthier now than I was before," Elliott says. "I just try to keep a positive attitude."
Elliott isn't alone. Roughly 3,100 people in the United States are on the waiting list for a heart transplant on any given day, but only about 2,200 donor hearts are available each year. The level of necessity, blood type, and size are among several criteria that determines who receives a donated organ. Additionally, 49 percent of people listed for a donor heart in the U.S. have been waiting for a year or longer.
While he waits for his heart, Elliott passes the time by visiting with family and friends and watching movies, and he's even taken up a new hobby — watercolor paintings. He stays mobile to keep up his strength, but declines to use the backpack that comes with the Freedom Driver, joking that he likes to carry the device manually to improve his arm strength.
He knows that an appropriate heart will come one day and he remains as patient as possible until that day comes, without complaint. His perspective on the situation is refreshingly optimistic.
"This time last year, I was dying," he said. "And this year, I'm alive and healthy."
But he has big plans in place, post-transplant recovery — when asked what he was looking forward to doing the most once he's home and in the clear, Elliott answered without hesitation.
"I can't wait to mow my yard!" he said.
Just another simple task most of us take for granted.
Rick's wife, Julie Elliott, has set up a donation fund in his name to help cover the costs of his medical care. If you would like to donate, stop at any Central Bank location and request that your donation go toward the "Elliott Heart Fund."
The Kentucky Organ Donor Registry is a safe and secure electronic database where a person’s wishes regarding organ donation will be fulfilled. Just one individual donor can provide organs and tissue for nearly 50 people in need.
To join the registry, visit http://www.donatelifeky.org or sign up when you renew your driver’s license. The donor registry enables family members to know that you chose to save and enhance lives through donation. Kentucky’s “First Person Consent” laws mean that the wishes of an individual on the registry will be carried out as requested.