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Bariatric Surgery Became the Bridge to a New Heart

At age 29, I went into my family doctor’s office for my yearly check-up. I walked out with a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. This is my story.

I received my diagnosis of congestive heart failure (CHF) in the fall of 2001 and was admitted soon thereafter to a hospital in Reading, PA, where I met Dr. René Alvarez for the first time. I worked with Dr. Alvarez to iron out a regimen of medication that would keep the fluid building up in my heart at bay. This regimen, paired with dietary restrictions and other lifestyle changes, worked well for me for 12 years—until things changed.

The Start of It All

In June 2013, I had a stroke, setting off a six-year saga of multiple surgeries, more hospitalizations than I could count, and, ultimately, a brand new heart.

Luckily, the stroke was small and came without any major complications. However, my doctors discovered that my ejection fraction (EF) rate—a measure of how efficiently my heart pumps—was low and getting worse. By the time my cardiologist checked its performance through a heart catheterization in 2014, it had dropped to just under 10% (normal EF levels are up to 70%).

Prepping For a New Heart

To keep the EF ratio in check, I started taking a drug called Milrinone and soon was on the highest dose that my doctors could administer. The doctors at Jefferson floated the idea of getting a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which they described as a bridge to a transplant. This was the first time the idea of needing a new heart entered my life.

I had my first LVAD pump installed on November 3, 2014, by Dr. John Entwistle, in what was one of the smoothest surgeries I would ever have. While I didn’t have issues with the LVAD device itself, I did have an onset of gastrointestinal (GI) complications, which continued to progress.

Selfie of Rodney after his successful heart transplant surgery

Rodney offering a thumbs up after a successful surgery.

These prolonged GI bleeding issues led to multiple long-term hospitalizations over the course of the next four years. In conjunction with these hospitalizations, I also had to receive over 40 blood transfusions to treat my ongoing GI problems. In 2018 I weighed 290 pounds and needed to lose a substantial amount of weight in order to safely have a heart transplant. But because of my heart condition, the amount of exercise I could do was severely limited.

I started preparation for bariatric surgery at Jefferson Health—Abington, which consisted of physical evaluations, mental evaluations, and a vitamin regimen. Unfortunately, in June 2018, I had my second stroke. This one had more severe complications than the first, causing me to lose peripheral vision while simultaneously (in layman’s terms) ruining my LVAD machine. Next up on the list of surgeries: emergency LVAD replacement.

Dr. Howard Massey performed the replacement surgery, which went without any hitches. Upon recovery, Dr. Rajesh Aggarwal performed my bariatric surgery and I dropped from 292 to 230 pounds, which put me at a safe level for heart transplant surgery.

I show up for my Jefferson appointments an hour early,  because most times I can’t walk into the hospital without seeing someone who helped save my life.

After my bariatric surgery, I continued to lose weight, but I also continued to have severe GI issues. These issues became so severe that my team of providers decided to intake me as a resident in Wing 5 West in order to keep an eye on my fluctuating health around the clock. I moved from Status 4 to Status 3, to Status 2 on the national heart transplant list.

The Big Day

On October 16, 2019, my doctors told me that I was getting a new heart. I am now and will be forever grateful to my donor.

Rodney and his wife enjoying time in nature

Rodney with his wife enjoying an active lifestyle after his bariatric and heart transplant surgeries.

Dr. Massey and Dr. Entwistle ensured that my recovery was smooth after the transplant procedure. They did an outstanding job and saved my life in the process. I’ve been recovering with relatively minimal complications.

Moving Forward

I show up for my Jefferson appointments an hour early,  because most times I can’t walk into the hospital without seeing someone who helped save my life. The team of doctors, nurses, techs and everyone else who made Wing 5 West my second home are more than just acquaintances to me now. They’re family.

With God’s grace, my new heart will keep me moving forward for years to come. I plan on using those years to help teach people about the LVAD machine that kept me moving for so many years and sharing my experience with others who find themselves in a similar situation.

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