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Strangers to VA Battle Buddies: Army Veterans bond over lifesaving heart procedures at Houston VA

Two Veterans
(Left to right) Army Veterans Christopher Williams and Daniel Kay pose for a photo in the Houston VA Surgical Intensive Care Unit.

Army Veterans Christopher Williams and Daniel Kay were strangers until advanced heart failure and life-changing surgery at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center saved their lives and brought them together.

Williams and Kay were each diagnosed with the beginnings of heart failure more than ten years ago and said they suffered with a poor quality of life in early 2022 when doctors from the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston recommended a left ventricular assist device. This life-changing and lifesaving procedure involves a small, battery-operated pump that’s implanted into the chest and helps the heart circulate blood.

“For years, I had been struggling with heart issues,” Williams said. “I had a heart attack last January and my defibrillator went off 14 times.  After that, I had trouble walking and going about my daily life.   When the doctors at the Houston VA told me I could be the first Veteran at this VA to get the LVAD, I jumped on it and I never looked back.”

Dr. Savitri Fedson, medical director of the advanced heart failure/transplant program and professor of medicine and clinical ethics at Baylor College of Medicine, said the Houston VA is one of just a few VA facilities performing the LVAD procedure nationwide.   Earlier this month, Houston VA surgeons also performed their first heart transplant surgery.  

“As one of the largest cardiothoracic and cardiology programs in the country, we offer the full spectrum of general cardiothoracic surgical care and welcome complex cases,” Fedson said.  “We are thrilled to offer our Veterans the state-of-the art care they have earned and so richly deserve.” 

Williams, a self-described “gym rat,” turned 55 a few days before getting the LVAD procedure in April. He then began the recovery process that involved intense physical therapy and a lot of mental and physical adjustments. “The doctors want you up and walking right away after the procedure and I could hardly get out of bed,” he said. 

Today he can walk for miles, works out at the gym and is feeling great.  He hopes to have a heart transplant sometime in the future, but in the meantime, Williams said he views every day as a gift. 

“I can’t say enough good things about the staff at the Houston VA,” he said.  “The doctors walked me through the procedure and were with me every step of the way during my recovery/ The nurses were there for me in more ways that I can describe.  Today I’m a different man than I was this time last year.”

A few months after his procedure, Williams was introduced to fellow Army Veteran Kay, who was also weighing the idea of getting the procedure.   The two immediately bonded. 

“I was worried about being a burden to my wife during my recovery and frankly, the idea of the LVAD was scary to me,” said Kay, a 62-year-old from Willis, Texas.  “Christopher told me to stop being selfish and instead focus my thoughts on being there for my family in the years to come.

“During my recovery, he encouraged me when I needed it and told me to get up and moving when I needed that, too.  Meeting him changed my life.”

While his recovery has been challenging at times, Kay said he is thrilled with the results. “I thank God and I thank the staff at the VA for saving my life. From the first moment I walked into the Houston VA, I felt the caring, compassion and incredible professionalism of the staff.  I have had care in many other hospitals over the years and nothing compares to the level of care I got at this VA.”

According to Dr. Alexander Schutz, cardiothoracic surgeon and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, the VA surgery team is thrilled to be able offer Veterans the most advanced surgical options to treat heart failure.  “This stage of heart failure used to be thought of as a death sentence,” said Schutz, who also serves as co-director of cardiothoracic surgery at the Houston VA. ‘By offering LVADs and heart transplants and combining them with our technology, experience and overall commitment to our patients, we are able to give Veterans back years of high quality of life.  That’s what we are here for.” 

Following their procedures, Williams and Kay wanted to express their unique appreciation to the Houston VA staff.  Williams and his wife Nina made the staff inspirational bracelets with the date of his procedure on them. Kay made a “Thank You” plaque that hangs on the wall in the hospital’s surgical intensive care unit.   

The two singled out Dr. Steve Antoine for the excellent care they received.

Doctor Antoine was just amazing,” Williams said.  “He went out of his way to put me at ease by asking me what music I prefer and by playing jazz music during one of my procedures. He took great care of me.”

“Dr. Antonine and Dr. Fedson took the time to sit down and answer every question I had, over and over,” Kay added.  “Before I got the procedure, I asked the VA team if we could stop and pray together.  These folks were there for me in every way.”

While bonding among patients receiving complex medical procedures is not uncommon, Dr. Antoine, advanced heart failure cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he is constantly amazed at how Veterans like Williams and Kaye are there for each other. 

“These Veterans don’t know each other but they step up and help each other through scary and life-changing experiences.  They truly are battle buddies.  It’s incredible to see.”

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