Looking at Pete Sanchez’s medical chart, the cardiologist knew she had to use tough love to deliver a strong message. Sanchez’s health was declining. His vital signs were alarming, his heart was becoming weak and his legs and ankles were starting to swell – common symptoms of congestive heart failure (CHF). “Pete, if we don’t start aggressive treatment, you’ll probably have six to 12 months left to live.”
Brandie Williams, M.D., a cardiologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Stephenville, shared those words with Sanchez nearly three years ago. Suffering from a mild stroke and heart attack in 2007, Sanchez continued to battle CHF as well. His weakened heart muscle made it hard for the 70-year-old grandfather to breathe.
Each year, more than 50,000 people die from CHF in the United States; that’s five adults every 60 minutes losing their lives to the debilitating disease, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
“Mr. Sanchez’s prognosis of living more than a few months was low,” Williams said.
Sanchez thinks Williams’ honesty and urgency saved his life.
“I slept in a chair for months, and I would be gasping for air, just walking from the bedroom to the kitchen,” Sanchez said. “I told Dr. Williams I wasn’t ready to go home to heaven just yet, so we started planning my evaluation process to see if I would qualify for a heart transplant at UT Southwestern [Medical Center].”
Williams, also with the Texas Health Physicians Group Practice Consultants in Cardiology, scheduled Sanchez’s appointment for May 16, 2016.
That appointment was a turning point in Sanchez’s medical journey, which would eventually involve dozens of caregivers and some of the world’s most advanced procedures.
“I can’t thank Dr. Williams enough for not sugar-coating my situation and for referring me to UT Southwestern for further evaluation,” Sanchez said. “That was a blessing, because I ended up getting really sick a few days before my scheduled appointment at UT Southwestern, and they were ready to take action.”
Sanchez’s breathing continued to deteriorate and he was airlifted to UT Southwestern on May 4, 2016.
After completing an in-depth screening procedure, which included an echocardiogram, cardiologists at UT Southwestern determined a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, would best address Sanchez’s severe CHF.
On May 19, the mechanical heart pump was implanted inside Sanchez’s chest, which helped his heart pump oxygen-rich blood through his body. The LVAD also provided Sanchez’s weak heart with the necessary assistance while he waited for a heart transplant.
“I received the LVAD on my birthday, and that was the best present I could imagine,” Sanchez said. “I could breathe again.”
Sanchez soon began cardiac rehab, but the Stephenville resident had to travel three times a week to Dallas for his rehabilitation. Realizing the long drive and inconvenience rehab was causing Sanchez, Williams expressed her concern to UT Southwestern. Arrangements were immediately made for Sanchez to complete cardiac rehab at Texas Health Stephenville.
With the LVAD, Sanchez’s heart strengthened. He could breathe better, but his stamina was still low; walking just a few steps made him tired. Williams and cardiologists at UT Southwestern suggested Sanchez be added to the waiting list for a heart transplant.
He was on the waiting list for only two weeks.
“When I found out, I cried,” Williams said. “I knew how far he had come and how much better he was going to feel with a new heart. He’s kept a positive attitude, despite all obstacles. I couldn’t think of a more deserving transplant recipient.”
On Oct. 16, 2018, Sanchez received a new heart and the next day underwent a kidney transplant because of organ damage from CHF.
Thanks to a collaborative program between Texas Health Resources and UT Southwestern, patients, just like Sanchez, also receive follow-up care at the Heart Failure Transitional Clinic, located at Texas Health Dallas.
“Delivering better health care to heart failure patients is important, and this collaborative program focuses on quality improvement, best practice initiatives and clinical research,” said Justin Grodin, M.D., assistant professor at UT Southwestern and an advanced heart failure and transplant cardiology specialist on the Texas Health Dallas medical staff.
Four months after his heart and kidney transplants, Sanchez is undergoing a second round of cardiac rehab at Texas Health Stephenville.
“Since my transplants, I don’t feel any pain,” Sanchez said. “I used to get tired, but now, I can get around by myself with my four-wheeled walker.”
Still in the recovery process, Sanchez remains optimistic, all because of his biggest motivator – his great-granddaughter Leah.
“That four-year-old girl is my beautiful cheerleader,” Sanchez said. “Before I got sick, she would make me coffee. Now she makes me exercise.”