The Challenge: A Longtime Struggle with Advanced Heart Disease
“I call it my amazing journey,” says Tom Piccione, a judge from New Castle, Pa.
Tom’s journey began years ago, when he learned of his enlarged heart during a routine exam for the Army. He’d never had any symptoms, but heart and vascular disease ran in both sides of Tom’s family.
In his early 40s, Tom had an abnormal EKG and failed a stress test. Doctors diagnosed him with advanced heart disease and he began treatment with medicine and lifestyle changes.
The Path to the UPMC Heart Transplant Program
Tom and his wife, Diane, have five children, including UPMC cardiologist Beth Piccione, MD. She chose to study cardiology to help her dad.
“I thought, ‘I have to fix him,’” Beth says.
She was in her second year of medical school at the University of Pittsburgh when Tom had a heart attack and then underwent quadruple coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery at UPMC Presbyterian.
A diabetes diagnosis added more medicines and lifestyle changes to Tom’s routine. And, in the years that followed — despite a pacemaker, then a defibrillator — his heart continued to weaken.
Beth was actively involved in her dad’s care and had thought about his possibilities for transplant.
“Every time I’d look at images of his heart, my own heart would drop,” she says. “I knew he’d have a chance at a better life with a transplant.”
During treatment for a serious kidney problem at UPMC Presbyterian in 2011, Tom also started to think a heart transplant might be in his future, but worried that his age and diabetes might prevent him from being a candidate.
The Solution: A New Heart
By 2013, even the simplest of tasks — like shaving or tying his shoelaces — left Tom severely short of breath.
He talked with his cardiologist, Michael Mathier, MD, of the Advanced Heart Failure Center at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, about his options.
Dr. Mathier recommended a transplant evaluation. Tom passed the necessary tests and joined the heart transplant list.
He enjoyed a burst of energy early that summer thanks to a new medication, but his symptoms returned within weeks. In early August, he was admitted to UPMC Presbyterian to await a transplant.
Tom’s transplant team explained that he might face some mental and emotional challenges being confined mostly to his bed — hooked up to many tubes and sensors, with very limited mobility — while he waited for a new heart. He was determined to stay upbeat, and took every day “one day at a time,” according to Beth.
Both Tom’s family and his faith sustained him during the wait. His wife, children, and grandchildren were a constant source of support.
And, while he struggled with the hard truth of his situation — that he would live because someone else, who had chosen to be an organ donor, would die — he found comfort in prayer and in talking with his priest.
On September 7, 2013, Tom underwent a heart transplant.
When woke up after the surgery, he was able to take a deep breath for the first time in years. His recovery was quick, and he was discharged just eight days after his transplant.
Tom and his family will never forget the excellent care and support he received from his transplant team.
“They are all wonderful — the doctors, the nurses, everyone. They really treat you like you’re the most important thing in their world,” Tom says.
Beth has never seen her dad look better and couldn’t be happier with his recovery.
“He’s gotten a whole second life because of this transplant,” she says.
Today, Tom is healthy and enjoying life.
At 69, he continues to serve as a judge and is actively involved with his family, which includes nine grandchildren.
Tom takes part in a transplant support group and has spoken to local organizations about his experience in the hope of raising awareness about organ donation. He remains grateful to his donor, whom he prays for every day.
“It’s been a great journey,” Tom says. “You have to want to do this, and it’s not without challenges. You need to understand your risks. But you also have to let go, trust in God, trust in your family, and know that you can do it. If you get the opportunity, go for it.”
Tom's treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.
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