November 2, 2017

Tenacity, teamwork, love, drive heart patient’s treatment journey

Sixty-six year-old Frank Donatelli knew the $39 he spent to join eHarmony was worth it.

Frank Donatelli, here with his wife, Evelyn, received an LVAD and a heart transplant at Vanderbilt to address his congestive heart failure. (photo by John Russell)

Sixty-six year-old Frank Donatelli knew the $39 he spent to join eHarmony was worth it.

The online dating site matched him with Evelyn. They married on Nov. 8, 2016. Within months he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and by the end of April he was placed on hospice care.

“He was admitted to the hospital, but five days later they sent him home with three to six months to live,” said a tearful Evelyn Donatelli.

“We had been home only 10 days and he was rapidly declining. I had to do something. I needed a second opinion. I wasn’t going to go down without it. I guess it’s the inquisitiveness in me.”

Frank smiled at his wife’s comment.

“I can tell you right now, I was not going to make it much longer at home,” Frank said. “Evelyn spent hours and hours, day and night on the computer, researching. I was circling the drain. I knew it. But she wasn’t giving up.”

After looking over at her then-very frail, gaunt and pale husband, she picked up the phone to call the heart transplant center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). She secured an appointment in the heart failure clinic on May 10.

Suzanne Sacks, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine, saw Donatelli in clinic that day.

“He was the classic picture of advanced heart failure — he was a skeleton, malnourished and retaining fluid,” said Sacks. “The previous center turned off his ICD (implantable cardiac defibrillator) and sent him home on hospice.

“I told him his heart was failing, he was reaching the end of life and he was too sick for a heart transplant, but I thought there was a good chance he would be a candidate for an LVAD. I knew with that, both his quantity and quality of life would substantially improve.”

Twelve days later he received an LVAD.

Frank and Evelyn later returned home to Maryville, Tennessee, where they had recently purchased a home together. There was a lot to do, they said.

Over the next five months, Donatelli gained 40 pounds, increased his nutritional intake, completed cardiac rehabilitation and became physically active.

“I felt alive. I was happy not to be sitting indoors watching the grass grow,” he said. “We love the outdoors, love working in it.

“We spent the last few months landscaping the yard. We built a waterfall and an indoor fireplace. I took my LVAD bag through its paces,” Frank chuckled. “It’s got paint, wood stain, sawdust and grass all over it. I was about to ask for a new one.”

But then the call came early on Oct. 29. Donatelli would receive the Medical Center’s 66th heart for 2017.

He was recently discharged following the transplant to an area hotel to complete his recovery before being able to return home.

“This has been … I can’t begin to express how amazing this all is,” he said through tears. “It’s so impressive that there are people who are so smart and knowledgeable to bring me back from the dead. This team, they never left me.”

Ashish Shah, M.D., director of Heart Transplant and Mechanical Circulatory Support at Vanderbilt and chair of the Department of Cardiac Surgery, was humbled by Donatelli’s sentiments.

“It’s what we are here for,” said Shah. “This man, who would not have made it to his 67th birthday nor been able to celebrate his one-year anniversary, now has a 90 percent chance of being alive in one year and a 70 percent chance of being alive in 10 years.

“A program of our size and with the depth of experience we have allows us to take on cases that others would consider too high risk,” said Shah. “We have a broad and deep bench of expertise and support to carry out this kind of care.”

The Donatellis are grateful Vanderbilt gave them a chance.

“I really feel like this is not real,” said Frank Donatelli. “I am waiting to wake up and say, ‘wow, that was some dream.’ Because of Vanderbilt I’m alive. I didn’t have to sit and let life go by me. I get to participate.”