Louie Vacanti remembers getting the call three days before Christmas while at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. He would receive a new heart and the doctors planned to perform the operation the next day.
Vacanti, of Holland, Erie County, who had been receiving temporary treatment for heart failure, needed a heart transplant.
“It was December 22. They called at 1 a.m. I had laid down in the hospital to fall asleep and my phone was ringing. One of the nurses came in and said, “You have a very important phone call. You might want to pick it up.
Vacanti learned on the call that doctors had found a heart match for him and that they planned to undergo the transplant the following day, December 23.
“As soon as I hung up the phone with them. I called my wife. I made it a point never to call her in the middle of the night while I was there unless I had a heart,” he said. “She had all the emotions I had – happy, scared, nervous, excited – because what we were waiting for was finally here.”
How did it get to this point, though? Vacanti, for whose transplant the community contributed $32,140 through a Gofundme campaign, said his name was put on the heart transplant list around September 30.
“I had to wait three months in the hospital. Once your name is elevated on the list and a deceased person is an organ donor, their name will enter a database. I’m in that database too… There’s all kinds of variables, so they really have to find the perfect heart for you.
Doctors performed the 10 a.m. operation Dec. 23 at Strong Memorial, and the UR Medicine Advanced Heart Failure team called it a “Christmas miracle.” UR Medicine said this week.
For seven years before the transplant, UR said, Vacanti had endured declining heart function. Buffalo cardiologists used a pacemaker and implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to support his heart. Eleven months ago he was assessed by Dr Igor Gosev and Dr Sabu Thomas from the advanced heart failure team. Thomas was Vacanti’s transplant cardiologist. They determined he was in dire need of mechanical pumps when both sides of his heart quickly gave out.
“He was admitted to our ward and we determined that the drugs weren’t going to be enough,” Thomas said. “When he arrived he was very ill and could not wait for a transplant. Dr. Gosev installed a temporary pump and we moved on to a more permanent device.
Gosev, a heart transplant surgeon, implanted the ventricular assist devices, which maintained heart function until a new heart could be found.
Gosev led the transplant surgery team, which included heart transplant surgeon Dr. Katherine Wood and anesthesiologists Dr. Brandon Lebow and Dr. Daniel Gross.
Gosev and Thomas told the Daily News that it took time to find a heart for Vacanti.
“It took a while because of his blood type, it was hard to find a good match,” Gosev said. “A few days before Christmas it became available. There are blood tests that examine if you are compatible with the heart. This blood work was what made the match a challenge.
“I think I was in intensive care for four or five days. The day after the operation, they got me out of bed and I was walking down the hall,” he recalls. “After the heart transplant, for my first walk, I might have done a full lap around the ICU.”
The heart transplant recovery was much smoother than last year after doctors fitted a left ventricle assist device (LVAD), Louie Vacanti said.
” I could not believe it. I thought I was going to suffer so much. They really took great care of me in ICU. The nurses were wonderful,” he said. “I think I waited about a week and a half, almost two weeks, and then I was released.”
For Alicia Vacanti, waiting to find out how the 10-hour operation went was nerve-wracking.
“(I was wondering) if I was going to get a good call or a bad call from the doctors,” she said.
Vacanti recalled how she felt the night before her husband had surgery.
“It was an overwhelming feeling. They let me spend the night with him. I probably left a few hours before the operation,” she recalls. “I spent the next five days at the Hilton Garden Inn , which was right next door. I was there for the next five days, every day, and went up there every weekend. During that time, I would work two jobs.
Louie Vacanti said he returned home on January 7.
“Every day I get stronger. I move much better. I’m taking it slow and trying my best and trying to heal,” he said. “Before the transplant, when I had the LVAD, it was quite difficult for me to walk up and down stairs and walk around.”
Vacanti said doctors told her to walk a lot and walk up and down stairs. They told him not to lift anything over 10 pounds and not to drive, and also to stay in the house due to the current situation with COVID.
“I was told that once the winter is over, we could receive people. They said about the first six months after the transplant, I had to be as careful as possible,” he said.
Alicia Vacanti said she got her husband back when he was released.
“It was probably one of the best days besides our marriage. When he got the LVAD, we knew he would go back (to Strong Memorial) eventually. This time, I knew he would be home for good,” she said.
Alicia Vacanti said the support she and Louie have received has been overwhelming.
“We missed a ton of memories and things with his friends. For years he missed vacations that all his friends were going to do,” she said. “It’s something we’re looking forward to doing.”
There are also family vacations that the Vacantis hope to take that they cannot do at the moment.
“I’m just thrilled and feel like our family is finally complete. We both feel we owe Strong Memorial Hospital everything. They gave their son and daughter (to Louie), and my son, their father We would give them the world if we could.