For seven months, David Watkins lay in a UW Medical Center hospital bed wondering when, and if, he would see his 7-year-old daughter MaKhaylla again.
“I wanted to go home so badly,” said Watkins, 51, an oil field worker from Anchorage, Alaska. Even so, “I stayed in good humor all the time.”
While waiting for a heart transplant, Watkins’ medical condition was so tenuous that staff jokingly called him “Mr. Nine Lives.” Every time Watkins seemed on the brink of death, he came back.
In January 2007, Watkins’ enlarged heart began to fail.
“If I walked across the room, I needed to take a 20 minute rest,” he recalled.
It took several visits to a clinic in Alaska before a nurse recognized the signs of heart failure and sent him immediately to a hospital. Doctors there determined Watkins needed a bypass, but worried that he might ultimately need a transplant. They rushed him to UW Medical Center on March 7, 2007.
Doctors carefully considered the best possible course, including transplant; but after talking with Watkins, doctors decided to give him an opportunity to keep his heart. They performed a bypass and surgical ventricular restoration (reshaping the enlarged heart). But within an hour, Watkins’ allergy to the blood thinner resulted in clotting of the bypass.
He was immediately implanted with a left ventricular assist device (LVAD). An LVAD replaces the pumping function of the heart and is used to keep blood moving through a person’s body to allow a damaged heart time to recover, or keep the patient alive until transplant.
Normally, patients are on this particular ventricular support for about 30 days. Watkins used it for 123 days.
Because of the distance between Alaska and Seattle, Watkins’ family could not visit, except for his son David, 24, who helped his father adjust following the transplant.
On July 20, 2007, Watkins learned a heart was waiting for him. As the staff wheeled him out of his room toward the operating room, Watkins took one last look at the curtains handmade by a previous patient. Watkins was under anesthesia and the surgeons were ready to make the first incision when they determined that the donor heart was not suitable for transplant. The transplant was cancelled, and a sleeping Watkins was returned to his room.
“When I woke up and I saw those curtains, I knew I didn’t get the heart,” he said. “No heart meant I still didn’t know when I could leave.”
Watkins continued on his LVAD while waiting for another heart. Another heart became available Aug. 6. And this time it worked.
“David has been an inspiration to everyone here,” said Dr. Nahush Mokadam, who performed the transplant with assistance from Dr. Gabriel Aldea. Dr. Carol Buchter is Watkins’ cardiologist at UWMC. Shauna Andrus, RN, is the mechanical circulatory support coordinator for UWMC cardiothoracic surgery.
“He had about as complicated a case as we’ve had in a long time,” Mokadam said. “The reason we were successful with David was because he wanted to be successful.”
Watkins left Seattle for Anchorage on Oct. 25, 2007, happy to finally see his daughter and his two grandchildren again.
“When I left Anchorage, my daughter was in the first grade. Now she’s in the second grade,” he said.
“It’s an amazing thing to see a heart come back to life,” Mokadam said. “I’m delighted David is finally going home.”
Watkins returned to work at the end of 2008. He returns to UW Medical Center every three months or so for checkups.
About the UW Medicine Regional Heart Center
The UW Medicine Regional Heart Center combines all areas of cardiology, cardiac surgery and cardiac anesthesia into one continuum of care for patients with cardiovascular disease.
Its faculty physicians are internationally recognized for their expertise in adult congenital heart disease, advanced heart failure, arrhythmia management, cardiac catheterization and intervention, cardiothoracic surgery and cardiovascular anesthesia.
The UW School of Medicine is the primary training site for cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons in the five-state WWAMI region, Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. The UW Medicine heart program is the only one in Western Washington that performs adult cardiac transplantation.
For more information, visit [[link]] www.uwheartcenter.org.