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April Is National Donate Life Month

By The Venice-Ocala Heart Institute

It could happen to anyone; a sudden accident permanently damages your organ’s function or an unexpected illness occurs and you become number 106, 601 on the organ donor waiting list. But what if this damage could have been prevented? Some chronic diseases may be preventable, but they still cause more than half of all deaths in the United States each year.

The risk of cancer or chronic health conditions may decrease with a healthy diet. “Get health problems taken care of right away, have surgery if you need to, but use transplants as a last resort,” says Mateo Dayo, M.D. of the Venice-Ocala Heart Institute in Venice, Fla.

Raymond Hellthaler, Jr. had a leaking valve – stage four mitral valve leak to be exact, and congestive heart failure (the heart is unable to adequately pump blood throughout the body and/or unable to prevent blood from “backing-up” into the lungs; the mitral valve is the “inflow valve” for the left side of the heart – allowing blood to flow from the left atrium to the main pumping chamber, closing to prevent blood from backing up into the lungs).

“Patients in elderly ages (late 70s and beyond) with significant deterioration in heart function may benefit from heart surgery as they are unlikely to qualify for heart transplants given their advanced age and associated medical problems,” says Jonathan Fong, M.D. of the Venice-Ocala Heart Institute.

Hellthaler’s family was deeply concerned. “He was not in good shape,” said wife, Barbara Hellthaler. “We did not have a long period of time to decide if we should undergo an operation.” An operation that could save his life, avoiding becoming 106,601 on a transplant waiting list. “It took us 20 minutes after we got home to decide we were going through with it,” she said.

Three bypasses, a mitral valve repair and an Ex-Maze procedure later, Raymond Hellthaler, Jr. is alive and well – having avoided the need for a heart transplant or more. (Electrical impulses cause the heart to contract. In atrial fibrillation the beat is irregular, blood can pool in the atria, leading to blood clots and potentially causing a stroke. The Ex-Maze procedure offers the possibility of converting the abnormal atrial fibrillation rhythm back to a normal rhythm). “We didn’t know how bad it was until Dr. Fong did some tests to prove the valve was leaking badly and the heart was not beating correctly,” said Barbara Hellthaler. “Dr. Fong saved his life. He is a wonderful, wonderful man,” she said.

“This was a prime example of embarking on an alternate solution (or operation) to receiving a transplant,” said Dr. Dayo.

“Raymond’s surgery was a complete success – having kept his own organs and persevering through what could have been dire results,” said Dr. Fong. “Raymond has gone from being severely debilitated even in simple activities to having a stronger heart function as measured not only by cardiac ultrasound but also by his ability to return to a significantly more active lifestyle,” he said.

Hearty Advice: Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, use of tobacco products and over-consumption of alcohol are all directly linked to instances of chronic health conditions. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women. But when you look at those four unhealthy habits, it becomes the most preventable chronic condition.” Like Dr. Dayo and Dr. Fong, all doctors are urging their patients to reconsider unhealthy lifestyles and care for the organs that they have had since birth.

“The human heart beats about 2.5 billion times in the average person’s lifetime. But for organ donors whose lives are cut short, these powerful organs have the potential to continue beating for another person,” said Dr. Dayo. Even though advancements in medical procedures allow for this life-saving operation, prevention should be the first priority for doctors and patients alike. Doctors, especially cardiac-thoracic surgeons, urge the community to spread awareness this month – 1) to spread hope in saving others lives when one is cut too short and 2) to get your health checked to avoid risk of being on the transplant list.

Counting the beats: “In cases involving thoracic transplants, the recipient patient must respond with urgency, as heart and lungs can only survive outside of the body for about five hours,” says Dr. Dayo. “We want people to realize how much hope donation provides and how quickly one must respond.”

“It is significant to recognize that taking precautions for your health can significantly reduce the number of people on the transplant list and help save your own life as well. Transplant surgery should be a last option,” said Dr. Fong.

Donor Facts:

  • One single donor can save more than 50 people on the growing waiting list for the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

  • As of March 2010, there are 106,600 waiting list candidates.

  • As of March 2010, there are 22,338 patients needing thoracic transplants (i.e. lungs, heart, liver)

Necessary Steps for an Organ Transplant:

  • Primary physician decides that the individual is in organ failure, and the patient is referred to a transplant center.

  • Extensive testing; if the individual is still a candidate, they are added to the list.

  • Patient must follow up and be prepared for their donation at any time.

The Venice-Ocala Heart Institute was started in July 2003. The foundation of the institute is simple: to care for families as they would for their own. The physicians have worked in complete cooperation with the Venice Regional Medical Center to build a program that has provided the highest quality of care – recognized as one to the Top 100 cardiac surgery programs in the nation. The goal of the Venice-Ocala Heart Institute is to draw upon the expertise of two specialties – cardiovascular surgery and cardiovascular anesthesia to deliver the best quality of cardiothoracic and vascular care to the heart, lungs and vascular needs of the patient. The Venice-Ocala Heart Institute is comprised of Cardiac, Thoracic and Vascular Surgeons and Cardiovascular Anesthesiologists working together to provide superior care for cardiac, thoracic and vascular patients. The Venice-Ocala Heart Institute is located at 706 The Rialto in Venice, Florida. For more information, contact the Venice-Ocala Heart Institute at 941-484-8004 or visit them online at  Additional resources gathered from: the United Network for Organ Sharing, Mayo Clinic, and

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