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New Heart, New Life for Air Force Veteran. Houston VA Completes First Heart Transplant

Heart transplant patient with VA doctors
Air Force Veteran John Graves celebrates with his VA care team, (left to right) Dr. Steven Antoine, Dr. Savitri Fedson, and Dr. Alexander Schutz.

Air Force Veteran John Graves is a self-described “beast” who has always been happiest when he is running, hiking or doing any kind of physical activity in the great outdoors.

After unexpectedly learning he had heart issues about five years ago, Graves’ health went downhill until he could barely walk to the end of his driveway. 

This week, after becoming the first Veteran heart transplant patient at Houston’s Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, Mr. Graves is doing laps around the hospital’s intensive care unit and planning future runs and hikes.  He says his hopes for the future are now sky high thanks to the amazing care he got at the VA.

“When I first came to this VA, I was in bad shape,” he said.  “Now I feel like there is no stopping me.  I plan to come all the way back from this and I’m not afraid of working hard to get there.”

Houston VA expanded its capacity to care for Veterans with advanced heart failure when cardiothoracic surgeons performed their first heart transplant on Graves a few weeks ago.

“We are thrilled to be able to add heart transplantation to our surgical therapies available for Veterans with advanced heart failure,” said Dr. Venkat Ramanathan, director of solid-organ transplant programs and associate chief of medical care line.  “We have an incredible team of cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons at the Houston VA and we are proud of our legacy of excellence in heart care and our commitment to continually employing new and better technology to extend and improve the lives of Veterans with heart failure.”

Houston VA is one of just two VA facilities in the nation performing heart transplants in-house.  In 2022, MEDVAMC also began implanting left ventricular assisted devices (LVADs) in patients with advanced heart failure. 

“As one of the largest cardiothoracic and cardiology programs in the country, we offer the full spectrum of general cardiothoracic surgical care,” said Dr. Mark Kobelja, Houston VA Chief of Staff and a Navy Veteran himself.  “Thanks to the incredible dedication and teamwork from disciplines throughout the hospital, we are proud to offer Veterans with heart failure world-class care at the Houston VA. We have more options to treat heart failure than ever before and by growing our services, we can help more Veterans get the care they have earned and so richly deserve.”

Graves says he for one is incredibly grateful to the staff at the VA and was particularly thrilled with the personal attention he received throughout the heart transplant process. 

“Having a heart transplant is a very humbling experience,” he said. “For a few days after the surgery, it was very hard to move around and the fantastic staff here have been with me every step of the way.”

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States.  According to the CDC, an estimated 6.5 million Americans live with heart failure and an additional 1 million are diagnosed with heart failure every year.  Roughly 8,000 Americans need a new heart to survive, but with a limited supply of donor hearts, only an estimated 3,800 transplants are performed.  

According to Dr. Savitri Fedson, medical director of the MEDVAMC’s advanced heart failure/transplant program and professor of medicine and clinical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston VA serves as a regional referral center within the VA and the facility’s new heart transplant program has the potential to provide lifesaving care for Veterans across the country.

“This is the beginning of a new era for us at the Houston VA,” Fedson said.  “Staff across our hospital are delighted to add heart transplants to the hospital’s already-thriving kidney and liver transplant programs.”

Graves, who plans to be discharged from the hospital in just a few days, has big plans for his future.  He and his wife of 48 years, Margaret, have bought a Boston Whaler boat and a comfy new motor home and look forward to traveling and having new experiences. 

“I have so much to look forward to,” he said.  “God and the VA came through for me and I’m going to get back out there and live my life.  You know….you can’t be afraid to try new things. That’s what life is all about.”