Heart Transplant: Patti Bucierka

Patti Bucierka describes her experience of being the 700th heart transplant at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Patti Bucierka received Aurora Health Care's 700th heart transplant. 

When Patti Bucierka received what would be Aurora St. Luke's 700th heart transplant since the program began in 1984, she never knew she would become an instant celebrity of sorts.

"It was a whirlwind," said Bucierka.

Amidst all of the celebration and talking about her experience, Patti has a moment of reflection.

"It's nice to have another chance."

Achieving this milestone further established Aurora St. Luke's transplant program amongst the top in the nation.

"We could do 700 more if we received more organ donations," said Joan Heimler, manager of organ and tissue recovery at St. Luke's.

That was Patti's reality and she found herself in the same situation as many others in need of a heart transplant - waiting.

However, waiting was only made possible by a device called a ventricular assist device or VAD, and Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center is one of only four locations implanting them in the state and their volumes are higher than the others as well.

VADs essentially serve as the "bridge to transplantation."

"When a patient is failing medical therapy early on, the VAD keeps patients alive with a good quality of life so that they are in better shape to sustain a complete heart transplant surgery once a donor heart becomes available" said Dr. Frank Downey, thoracic surgeon at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center.

Not to be confused with an artificial heart, the VAD is a pump that takes over the work of the left ventricle of the heart, the most common side to experience failure.

Now in the third generation of design, VADs have come a long way in a short time since their FDA approval in 1994. In addition to having a continuous flow and steady pressure, each generation has also gotten smaller and the external battery pack a VAD patient must wear has gotten smaller as well.

"The current power source fits into a 'fanny pack' and the battery lasts 12 to 18 hours. Fourth generation VADs are most likely to be about the size of an iPod and have a longer lasting battery. Prior to the external, wearable power source packs, VAD patients wouldn't be allowed to leave the hospital," explained Dr. Downey.

Although there is no time limit for a patient to live with a VAD, the typical timeframe varies from a year to a year and a half with the average being six months.

Life before the VAD

"I used to be a very heavy smoker, also overweight and stressed. One day I got really sick. Mike told me I was having a heart attack. I said 'No, it's just the flu.'" Even Patti's daughter told her she was having a heart attack. "I was adamant that I had the flu."

Over a period of hours, Patti's condition worsened. The point at which she 'gave in' to calling an ambulance was when she felt a lot of pain and very uncomfortable pressure. From there she was taken by ambulance to Aurora Medical Center in Hartford and stabilized. She then was airlifted to St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee. Patti was suffering from a very serious condition known as coronary artery disease, which causes significant blockage and severely limits essential blood flow to the heart.

Mike, Patti's husband, received a call from St. Luke's Medical Center that Patti's heart was not pumping enough blood and that she was on a ventilator. Without treatment in the next couple of hours, Patti would likely die. Mike put his faith into the cardiovascular team and was very helpful in Patti's recovery. The significant other of an organ recipient plays a tremendous role in the recovery process.

Getting the donor heart was a much different experience.

"I was really excited. I didn't even get nervous when they called. When we got to St. Luke's, I was ready to go into an operating room," said Bucierka.

Aurora St. Luke's cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. John Crouch, performed the landmark 700th transplant and got the thumbs up from Patti.

"It went just so splendidly. The day after surgery, I was up and the day after that I was moving around." Mike concurred, "A normal person may have reservations about having this surgery, but she never did. She was raring to go from the beginning."

Throughout the whole experience from getting the VAD implanted to the wait for a heart to the eventual heart transplant surgery, Patti's family has been very supportive and mindful of her condition but she looks forward to getting back to some normalcy.

The big question: Who donated their heart so that Patti could live?

"I may get to know later maybe. I have the option of writing a thank-you card which I give to the hospital that, in turn, sends to the donor. The donor then has the option of replying. Further correspondence and meeting is at the discretion of both parties." Would she be willing to do that? "That's something I want to think about because I've had to take in so much, so fast," answered Bucierka, cautiously.

The average time someone with a VAD must wait to receive a heart transplant is typically between six months to a year. There is no time limit to living with a VAD although the longer it remains in the patient's body; there is increased risk for complications including scar tissue formation and bleeding.

Often, suitable donor hearts must meet several criteria related to the potential recipient: blood type (Type O is the most common and therefore means longer waiting periods), height and weight (donor heart must match transplant patient's body type), plus priority levels (priority is given to the sickest patients in closest proximity to the donor). Interestingly, donor hearts frequently come from outside of Wisconsin.

Patti had her VAD and subsequently received her donor heart in approximately five months.

"I feel lucky," said Patti. "Between the amounts of time I had left to live and how many hearts become available, I feel very lucky. My regular doctor told me that if I hadn't gone to St. Luke's I wouldn't have made it."

Now that she's not taking her days for granted anymore, Patti offers some words of wisdom to others.

"The heart attack I had was nothing like the one you see dramatized on TV. I thought I had the flu. If something feels different, get it checked out, without a doubt," said Bucierka.

So, is Patti an organ donor advocate now?

"Oh, most definitely, there's no reason to not be on the list. I'm going to encourage all of my family members to become donors."