Earl Lovell was traveling when his life was saved after suffering a massive heart attack. But most of his journey back to health would take place much closer to home.
While attending a convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in June 2009, he awoke one night suffering a "widow maker" heart attack. Very few people survive this type of heart failure, which can kill in a matter of minutes. As the ambulance that came for Lovell pulled away from the hotel, the driver made a last-second decision to drive an extra few miles to Charlotte's only Level I trauma center. That quick choice most likely saved Lovell's life.
Massive Heart Damage
Lovell had no family history of heart problems, and his attack came without warning. On the night of Lovell's attack, a plaque deposit in one of his arteries ruptured and blocked the blood flow to his heart. Fortunately, Lovell's wife was with him and able to call 911.
"The heart attack literally blew up my left ventricle," says Lovell, a native-born Guyanese man with a slight British accent. "It was completely destroyed."
Doctors worked through the night to save Lovell, and he remained in the hospital for two weeks of intensive care and recovery with his wife at his side. He was so frail, he was only allowed to return home if he flew nonstop, avoiding the stress of something as normal as changing planes.
After he returned home, Lovell received care from local doctors at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. His doctors knew his heart had been damaged so badly that he would eventually need a heart transplant.
During the next two years, as Lovell attempted to regain his health, the continuing stress on his heart strained his lungs, which began nearing a state that would require them to be removed and replaced if they were damaged any further. He suffered several other setbacks, including multiple incidents of congestive heart failure, an allergic reaction to his cholesterol medication and an infection caused by a reaction to some antibiotics.
Choosing the Right Transplant Clinic
Lovell originally intended to have his heart transplant done at either UCLA or Stanford, but his doctors recommended Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento. This was not just based on the fact that Sutter was closer. "The reason my doctor referred me to Sutter is because the care I would get post-transplant would be second to none," Lovell says.
Lovell is an avid learner, and he studied everything he could about heart disease, treatments and transplants. After meeting with John Chin, M.D., interventional cardiologist and medical director at Sutter's Advanced Heart Therapy and Transplant Clinics, Lovell was sold that Sutter Medical Center was the right place to have his transplant and post-operative care.
"I knew I had made the right decision after meeting with Dr. Chin," Lovell says. "Our relationship was like a puzzle coming together. He was personable, and he told me exactly what I needed to know."
The path to receiving a transplant included getting on the donor list, finding a match and having a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted to stabilize his heart and lungs. The LVAD was implanted by Robert Kincade, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at Sutter Medical Center.
"The LVAD changed my life. It allowed my body to heal," Lovell says. "Prior to getting the LVAD, I could only walk about 30 feet without having to grab hold of something because I was gasping for air. You're basically like a zombie. You're just existing. You can't move. That's how bad my condition was at times."
After receiving the LVAD, Lovell waited nine months for a donor. A 42-year-old Korean businessman who was pronounced brain-dead after falling off a rooftop allowed Lovell to receive a life-saving, new heart almost two years after the attack that almost killed him. The transplant was performed by Michael Ingram, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at Sutter Medical Center and co-medical director of the Sutter Heart & Vascular Institute.
Transplant Is a Beginning, Not an End
Receiving his new heart was not the end of Lovell's journey back to a more normal, healthy life—he received a new "family" that he will work with the rest of his life. His Sutter team includes his cardiologist, surgeons, a dedicated nurse coordinator to manage his case, support nurses, a dietitian, a rehabilitation therapist and a counselor.
"I view the heart transplant clinic and the individuals as a family. I would not trust anyone else with my life. Anything they tell me to do I will do it. I have that much confidence in them and their ability to take care of me," Lovell says. "There aren't enough words in the dictionary to describe the faith I have in the team that are staffing the heart transplant and vascular clinic at Sutter. Any time I have a question, I can pick up the phone and contact them, and I know I will get a response from them the same day or the next day."
After his surgery, Lovell's weekly medical visits to the center turned into monthly, then bi-monthly, then quarterly and semi-annual visits, and Lovell now needs only an annual visit to monitor his heart. He takes advantage of monthly LVAD patient group counseling sessions, but otherwise life is mostly back to normal for the 64-year-old.
"I go wherever I want to, and I drive everywhere," Lovell says. He's now retired and giving public service presentations to groups on behalf of Sierra Donor Services, which helped him find his heart transplant match.
"I don't feel sorry for myself. I feel that what happened to me that night was a blessing," he says. "The things that have happened since then are all blessings—the people that I have met, the specialists that I have seen. My whole life has changed 180 degrees. I thought I was living life. I had traveled the world. I had seen a lot of things. But I hadn't even begun to live, and I am now living life. Really living life."