September 18, 1998

Heart Walk serves as inspiration to recovering transplant patient

Heart Walk serves as inspiration to recovering transplant patient

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Heart transplant patient Bill Stepp and his wife of 30 years, Peggy, aim to walk on Sunday. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

When 4,000 walkers gather near the Dayani Center on Sunday for the American Heart Walk, Bill Stepp and his wife, Peggy, hope to be among them.

But you'll have to pardon Bill for not walking the two- or four-mile course. After all, it will have only been 11 days since he underwent a heart transplant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, after nine months in the Veterans Administration Medical Center's medical intensive care unit.

For Bill and Peggy, making an appearance at the Heart Walk ‹ however brief ‹ is important because the American Heart Association fund-raising event is a symbol of his long struggle against heart disease. It will also give him and his wife an opportunity to provide living testimony to the importance of organ donation.

"I hope everybody will participate in the Heart Walk because you never know when you're going to need help," Peggy said during an interview in Bill's room in VUMC's coronary care unit five days after his transplant.

"The most important message I have is the importance of sharing your organs," Bill said.

This year's American Heart Walk is hosted by Vanderbilt University on the medical center and university campus. Registration begins at 1 p.m. Sunday in Lot 42, the surface parking lot across from the Dayani Center. The walk begins at 2 p.m.

The American Heart Walk raises money for heart disease and stroke research, public and professional education and community service programs. The event also is intended to raise public awareness about heart disease and the heart healthy benefits of walking.

As the recipient of a heart transplant, Bill is also an example of the importance of research into new ways to treat heart disease. During his long wait for a donor heart, he also benefited from another technological advance, a pump called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that serves as a "bridge to transplantation."

Bill, 50, a pipefitter for oil refineries in Houston, Texas, faced early "retirement" six years ago after suffering a massive heart attack and undergoing a quadruple bypass. He and his wife, Peggy, moved to Jackson, Miss., to be closer to both their families. In the meantime, Bill's health continued to decline.

Last August, he was referred to the Nashville VA for a heart transplant. The VA, through a partnership with VUMC, is one of only five VA centers designated to do heart tranplants and is the main referral center for VA patients in the southeast. Bill went on the list the following month and entered the hospital in January to wait until the transplant.

In May, after it was discovered that a "matched" heart was too diseased for transplant, Bill's condition had deteriorated even further. Surgeons at VUMC implanted the LVAD.

"We put in the LVAD to save his life," said Dr. Stacy F. Davis, assistant professor of Medicine. "An LVAD provides a bridge to a transplant and helps patients regain strength and mobility so that they are in better physical condition when a donor heart becomes available."

Staff at the VA built a special cart ‹ the "First Stepp Heart Cart" ‹ to carry Bill's life-support equipment and enable him to move around the hospital. Earlier this month, staff at the VA and VUMC took the Stepps on a special trip to a nearby restaurant for lunch.

"Bill's a real outdoorsman, so being confined to the hospital for nine months has been really difficult," Peggy said. "That day, when we got outside, he said, 'Just let me feel the sun on my face.' One day it rained, and he asked the nurses to take him downstairs just so he could smell the rain. Those are things we all take for granted, but now we know that they mean so much."

Last Wednesday at 4 a.m., the call came. Later that morning, surgeons transplanted Bill's new heart and removed the implantable LVAD equipment. He has returned to the VA to continue his recovery. After several more days in the hospital, Bill is expected to be released to a nearby hotel. The Stepps' goal is to be home by Christmas.

And if his recuperation continues at a fast pace, the cart may enable Bill to leave the VA on Sunday to thank Heart Walk participants for supporting the fight against heart disease.

For more information about the Heart Walk or to get involved, call the American Heart Association at 327-0885. Tell them you want to be a part of the Vanderbilt team.