UK patient with artificial heart gets birthday surprise

When Lester Walters woke up Friday morning, he didn’t have big plans. A patient of nearly eight month at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center, Walters takes his life “one day at a time.”

Around noon on Friday, he took one of his daily walks around the floor to get some exercise with one of his doctors. His doctor already knew he could walk, though, so he wasn’t sure why she was with him. But when he rounded a corner, he was greeted by a crowd of friends and family shouting “surprise,” shaking tambourines and singing “Happy Birthday.”

Walters’ wife, B.J. Pittman, said he is hard to surprise, but Walters said he had no clue the hospital staff had been planning the party to celebrate his 60th birthday with pizza, balloons, music and presents.

“He’s the kind of guy that I think anybody that has taken care of him, that knows him, wants to do something special when they can,” said one of Walters’ nurses, Abby Stanforth, who came to the hospital on her day off to take part in the celebration.

Walters is the fourth patient at the hospital to receive a Total Artificial Heart, which he wheels around on a cart as it pumps his blood through his body.

In December, he came to the hospital with a failing heart and didn’t have many options. He was too sick to wait for a transplant, so he had to get the temporary Total Artificial Heart, or he probably wouldn’t have made it, Pittman said.

“At that point you don’t really have reservations,” Pittman said. “You just try to have faith and hope and take your shot.”

The device serves as a “bridge to transplant.” After he received the temporary artificial heart, Walters was placed on the transplant list.

Waiting for a heart transplant is “completely unpredictable,” said Julia Akharekhavari, mechanical circulatory support manager. Walters is on the list with the highest status, but must wait until there’s a donor with a match.

“There are thousands of patients waiting for life-saving organ transplant, and they wouldn’t get what they need without the gift that the donors and their families give them,” said Dr. Navin Rajagopalan, medical director of heart transplantation at UK. “The hope is that patients will receive these organs and lead productive lives and fulfill their dreams, be able to spend time with their family.”

Walters’ family, which lives in Berea, comes to Lexington to visit him as often as they can. Pittman said her smartphone thinks the hospital is where she works because of how often she’s there.

Walters, who suffered his first heart attack at 42, and Pittman agree the hospital staff is some of the best he’s ever had.

“And I’ve been here long enough to know,” Walters added with a laugh.

“You don’t know when you’re going to get a heart,” he said. “I might get one today, it might be next week or next month, so I try to stay focused and wait until it gets here.”

Even though he’s living without a heart, Walters said he doesn’t feel 60.

Stanforth said Walters is a quiet guy but “very easy to get along with.”

“He can tell if you’re having a rough day,” she added. “He’s the kind of guy that will try to help you even though you’re the one that’s taking care of him.”

Emma Austin: 859-231-1455