A Very Special Thanksgiving For Sean Dookwah

It’s been a busy last few weeks at the Emory Heart & Vascular Center. Earlier in November, we shared with you a story of a recent milestone for our Heart & Vascular program when Emory physicians completed their 200th Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement. Milestones such as this one have tremendous implications for our patient community. We are consistently putting into practice innovative technology that means longer, fuller lives for our patients. For Sean Dookwah, from Athens, Georgia, this notion rings especially true this holiday season. Sean will be able to enjoy his first Thanksgiving holiday with a new lease on life after Emory physicians implanted his new ventricular assist heart device at Emory University Hospital. Sean’s VAD implant was the 100th such procedure performed at Emory.

The first ventricular assist device was implanted in Georgia at Emory in 2006 as a form of destination therapy (in place of a donor transplant) for individuals who are not eligible for–or unable to undergo–a heart transplant. Ventricular assist devices are battery-operated mechanical pumps that help a weakened heart pump blood throughout the body. They are most commonly used as a bridge to transplant for those whose medical therapy has failed and who are hospitalized with end-stage heart failure. More recently, the VAD is providing an alternative to transplant. VADs allow a near normal quality of life, with most patients returning home with their families while they wait for a donor heart to become available.

Sean Dookwah, Emory Patient

Sean Dookwah at Emory University Hospital

Sean, who is 39 years old, began his journey to receiving his ventricular assist device and returning home to his family just two years ago. He had spent years as a construction worker, which kept him fairly active and fit. But after pursuing an office-based career in IT, Sean fell into a more sedentary lifestyle, which included lack of exercise, poor eating habits, long, stressful hours, all accompanied by a 20-year smoking habit.

It was in 2009 that Sean began to feel weak and ill enough to justify a visit to his local emergency room in Athens. “I felt weak, tired, sick, terrible. I was not having a heart attack, but it was there that I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which is basically a weakening of my heart. That was a wake-up call,” says Sean.

After receiving the news, Sean moved in with his family and immediately adopted a healthier lifestyle, which included exercise, healthier eating, and dropping the smoking habit. Within about 18 months he dropped almost 150 pounds – from 480 to a current 330 pounds. He attributes much of his success in turning around his lifestyle to his friends and family.

“My friends and family have been incredible help and an inspiration to me – helping to keep me encouraged and on track, and some of my friends have even quit smoking themselves – both for me and them. I hope to eventually be added to a heart transplant list, but I have some work to do to still lose weight and get down to a healthier frame.”

And after his successful ventricular assist device implantation just a few days ago, Sean is eager to return home to his family for the the Thanksgiving Holiday and continue making healthy progress and enjoy his already drastically improved health. “I feel incredible compared to where I was just a few weeks ago. I was so tired and weak I couldn’t walk from one part of the room to the other,” Sean says. “Today, I feel alert, strong, healthy and like I could run a marathon. It’s amazing, and I am definitely thankful for everyone who made this possible for me – from the doctors and nurses at Emory – to my friends and family. I can’t wait to get home.”

It is milestones like our 100th VAD implant and stories such as Sean’s that make us especially thankful for the positive impact our team is able to have on our community. “Until fairly recently, surgeons have been implanting VADs as a temporary bridge to heart transplantation. We now have the ability to also offer those patients who are unable to undergo a heart transplant to dramatically improve the quality with what we refer to as destination therapy – meaning the device will stay with the patient indefinitely,” remarks David Vega, MD, professor of surgery and director of the heart transplant program in the Emory Transplant Center.

“This technology offers new hope and a much greater quality of life. And with more than five million Americans who suffer from congestive heart failure, with another half million diagnosed each year, this device is a viable, and often-times live-saving – option for our patients,” Vega continued.

Sean will be released for home today, one day before Thanksgiving and just a few days after his procedure, where he will join his family and friends for what very likely will be the most thankful of holidays.

We too are thankful to have the opportunity to improve the lives of people like Sean. And for those of us that are part of the Emory team, but are not in clinical roles, we are tremendously grateful for and appreciative of our researchers and care teams who make saving lives like Sean’s possible.

Happy holidays everyone.

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