PLEASANT POINT – Arthur “Artie” Birdsall’s life is dedicated to carving duck decoys, a tradition that goes back generations in his family and a vocation to which he has dedicated 50 years of his life.
But Birdsall’s carving days nearly came to an end when heart failure prevented him from breathing and robbed him of his ability to carve the wooden birds, which are used in duck hunting and are works of art. collectible art.
With the help of a team of cardiologists, new heart technologies and advanced surgical techniques, the 73-year-old Point Pleasant resident is getting his life back and his chance to start sculpting again.
Birdsall, a fourth generation decoy carver, is well known in the decoy collecting community. He’s also a fixture in Point Pleasant, where his family settled generations earlier and where he’s considered a local historian, his cousin Evelyn Regan of Point Pleasant said.
“He’s a fixture, he’s a character and everyone in town knows him,” she said.
Birdsall was also known for judging decoys and running his own table at the Barnegat Bay Duck and Decoy Show, an annual event that drew thousands of visitors and tourists to southern Ocean County. See a photo gallery of the most recent show at the top of this story.
Birdsall said he discovered his life’s passion when he went to carve decoys for his uncle Charlie Birdsall in 1971. The elder Birdsall was on his way to making Point Pleasant the duck decoy capital of the United States, according to a 1961 article in the Asbury Park Press. .
For young Artie, sanding and woodworking came naturally. He liked the people he met in the business, Birdsall recalled.
“(Decoy carving) that was it. That was my home run. That was my number 10,” Birdsall recalled. “It wasn’t a job. It was fun.”
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Out of breath
The first signs that something was wrong with Birdsall’s heart came years ago when he was pulling a decoy sled through the snow on a hunting trip with a friend.
“I remember being out of breath,” Birdsall recalled, saying his hunting partner then took the sled and set up the decoys as he caught his breath.
Over time, he found that his condition was deteriorating.
“I started taking breaks,” Birdsall said. Shortly after, “I couldn’t breathe. I was sitting in a chair with my feet up, gasping for air.”
The shortness of breath was so severe that Birdsall said he had to stop working in his carpentry shop on the decoys.
Medical tests soon revealed that Birdsall was suffering from end-stage heart failure.
Due to a shortage of hearts available for transplant, Dr. Jesus Almendral and Dr. Deepak Singh of Jersey Shore University Medical Center implanted a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, in Birdsall’s chest. . The device works to pump blood from the left ventricle of his heart to the rest of the body.
“There are more than 6 million people with heart failure in the United States, and about 5% of those people end up with end-stage heart failure, which Mr. Birdsall had,” said Almendral, a heart failure and transplant expert who is on Birdsall’s team of cardiac doctors.
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Ideally, this type of end-stage heart failure would result in heart transplantation; however, “there are (only) so many hearts going around and a lot of people have comorbidity, or sometimes they’re overage and they’re not eligible for a heart transplant,” Almendral said.
Fortunately for Birdsall, the left ventricular assist device has advanced in recent years and is now nearly as effective as a heart transplant, said Singh, a cardiac surgeon at Jersey Shore University Medical Center who helped insert Birdsall’s device.
“As things have gotten safer and safer, the pool of (heart) donors has gotten smaller and smaller,” Singh said. “So there are a lot of patients waiting for the best advanced therapies and these new devices. What’s exciting is that they’re smaller, there are fewer complications and they last longer.”
Regan, Birdsall’s cousin, said the implanted device connects through tubes in his abdomen to the batteries he wears like a holster. To leave the house, Birdsall carries a bag of spare batteries with him, she said.
For about a year and a half after the ventricular device was implanted, Birdsall felt fine, but the shortness of breath returned last year, her doctors said.
“I couldn’t walk down the aisle to get my mail,” Birdsall recalled. “That was the sign. It was getting worse and worse.”
His team of doctors discovered a leak in one of Birdsall’s heart valves.
“As soon as the pump (of the ventricular apparatus) would pump blood into his aorta, it would come back into his ventricle. So it (the blood) keeps spinning there, as if (the heart) was turning its wheels” , Singh said.
Birdsall was not a good candidate for a third open-heart surgery, according to his heart team.
Instead, Singh and Dr. Matthew Saybolt, director of the structural heart disease program at Jersey Shore University Medical Center, performed a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR procedure. The new procedure is less invasive – implanted through a small incision in the groin – compared to traditional open-heart surgery.
Singh said the valve replacement technology represents a “paradigm shift” in heart surgery and allows some patients to be discharged from hospital the next day.
“You get the immediate benefits without any setbacks from the surgery,” Singh said.
Since his last surgery, Birdsall has returned home and is recovering.
“I am a survivor,” he said. “The doctors, they did so much for me. Thanks to them, I am a success.”
Almendral, the doctor who helped implant Birdsall’s ventricular device, said he wanted to see his patient start carving decoys again.
“We’ll do all of this for you,” Almendral recalled telling Birdsall. “But I want you to start doing what you love again.”
Birdsall said he is not yet back in his carpentry shop, but plans to start carving in the near future as he recovers. He continues to assess and log decoys for others, Regan said.
To help out, her friends started a GoFundMe page to cover some medical bills not covered by her insurance. To donate, visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/art-birdsall-lovelandtown039s-decoy-king.
Amanda Oglesby is from Ocean County and covers the townships of Brick, Barnegat and Lacey as well as the environment. She has worked for the press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, [email protected] or 732-557-5701.