Heart and Vascular Patient Story: Robert Walton

"Bridge to Transplant" Gives the Gift of Time

Robert Walton had never paid much attention to his health, but in 2001 he had a cold that just wouldn’t go away. When he finally saw a doctor, he was diagnosed with pneumonia, an enlarged heart and arrhythmia. It was the beginning of a long and treacherous path to a healthy heart for this 46-year-old Milwaukee native.

In the next several months, Robert’s condition grew steadily worse. At various times, he required 24 hour-a-day dialysis, multiple surgeries and a 4-month hospital stay. A defibrillator was implanted and it restarted his heart on many occasions – up to almost a dozen times in one day. The need firmly established, Robert’s name was placed on the waiting list for a heart transplant.

While waiting to get to the top of the list and find a suitable donor, his health deteriorated further. One particularly bad day he told Ronald Siegel, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin cardiologist, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

Dr. Siegel conferred with Alfred Nicolosi, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin cardiac surgeon and section chief, adult cardiac surgery, and scheduled immediate surgery. It happened so swiftly that he was unable to see his daughters Kelly (21) and Angel (12) or his mother, Esther, before the being wheeled into surgery.

He awoke 3 days later with an LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device) implanted in his chest, a machine that does the work of the heart. “I couldn’t believe how much better I felt,” reported Robert. The life-saving machine, however, was not without unpleasant side effects. The batteries must be changed every four hours, and it makes a noticeable whooshing sound, like a washing machine. “I couldn’t do anything, it was loud, it stuck out of my stomach and made it difficult to breathe.”

Many patients have this device as a “bridge to transplant,” which can improve overall health and sustain the patient while waiting for a suitable donor.

The donor was a young girl, the victim of violence. Robert still keeps in touch with her grandmother and acknowledges that they gave him, “the greatest gift you can get.” "Meeting her was such an experience," he remarks. "It’s so hard to explain. She really wanted to see me and touch me. She wanted to hear her granddaughter’s heart beating. She laid her head on my chest and just listened."

Robert’s case is just one example of the Heart and Vascular Center at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. Each practice uses a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to study specific types of cardio-vascular disease. “We meet regularly to discuss each individual patient and their treatment,” said Dr. Nicolosi.

The groups include dieticians, nurse practitioners, physical therapists and social workers as well as physicians. They focus on specific heart conditions and work together to develop treatment algorithms. It’s an approach that sets Froedtert & the Medical College apart and makes a difference for patients like Robert Walton. “After all,” Dr. Nicolosi acknowledges, “ten heads are better than one.”

Today, Robert Walton has a new heart and a new outlook. “I’ve tried to be thankful for my life … to get closer to God and stay close to my family and friends. I don’t take life for granted. When you get a gift like this, you don’t want to blow it.”


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