Journey of a heart

Joe Persichetti celebrating a birthday

Joe and Vicky celebrate the anniversary of his "new birthday" each year by bringing a cake to share with members of his Emory heart transplant team.

by Rhonda Mullen

After an Emory heart transplant patient came back from the brink of death, he decided "this new heart and me are going to make a difference."

Joe Persichetti thinks of his life as a journey—from robust health to near death and back again. It's been more than five years now since he received a heart transplant at Emory.

Persichetti was a busy working father and husband when he first encountered heart problems. He managed AT&T's maintenance group, coached his sons' baseball and football teams, and enjoyed holidays with his wife and their brood of five. He also was active in the community and at church. 

But at age 40, Joe Persichetti saw his life take a dramatic turn. He had his first heart attack, followed by another when he was 47, and a third at 53. His youngest son turned 12 soon after his father's third heart attack—the same age Persichetti was when he saw his own dad die at the breakfast table of a heart attack.

Despite several operations for bypass and installation of a pacemaker and a defibrillator, Persichetti's heart continued to fail. He had to retire from his job of 37 years. He lost 64 pounds, his average blood pressure dropped so low that he had no energy to move, his kidney function slowed. Every other weekend for more than a year he was in the hospital so fluid could be drained from his heart.

He vividly remembers the day when his Emory cardiologist told him he needed a transplant. "Andy Smith sat me down and said, ‘You need a new heart.' It was a shock. But he told me, ‘Listen, it's okay, we're going to take care of you.' And it was. I always felt like he was treating me, not the disease."

In the four months Persichetti spent on the transplant list, he remembers replaying his life's journey in his head. He had no energy even to speak, and his priest came often to visit. One of his best friends would stop by and just sit with him. No words could express what he saw his buddy going through. Meanwhile, his wife Vicky was worrying over him but still keeping the daily chores of life going—driving their youngest son to school, shopping for groceries, cleaning the house, paying the bills.

On November 3, 2004, the Persichettis got the news they were waiting for. There was a heart. "My wife was driving me to Emory, and I had tears streaming down my face. I knew that someone was being taken off life support, that in their darkest hour, a family was deciding to give me life," Persichetti says. "That is the toughest part of my journey, knowing that someone had to die so that I might live."

The experience he had in transplant was an incredible journey, Persichetti says. "I'm alive today because of the Emory team—Dr. Vega, Dr. Smith, Dr. Book, Dr. Lascar, Dr. Lutz, the lab techs who matched me with a donor, the nurses. I can still tell you the names of all my nurses and what shift they were on. They held my life in their hands. They kept me alive."

The road taken

After transplant, however, Persichetti's journey was far from over. In some ways, it was just beginning. "When I came back, I said, This heart and me are going to make a difference," remembers Persichetti.

He joined the Georgia Transplant Foundation as a volunteer and mentor to help people facing transplant, and he's at Emory University Hospital at least twice a week to talk to patients. He's mentored more than 30 people to date. He doesn't tell them that he knows how they are feeling because everyone's journey is different, he says. He does tell them what he knows—that transplant is a process, that everyone is scared. He tries to take the fear of the unknown away.

He meets once a month with the Emory Health Support group, headed by chaplain Wendy Wyche. He goes on the road to health fair screenings, local businesses, and high schools to talk about his own experience and as a volunteer for Life Link, a foundation that raises awareness for the need for organ donation. These five years out, his calendar is loaded with speaking events, and his wife Vicky goes with him. "Some people die waiting for a heart because we're not educating people," he says. The Persichettis want to change that.

He also is one of close to 100 current and former patients who are helping leaders and staff at Emory Healthcare improve the health system. The decision to involve patients can be tricky, Persichetti says, "because you have to listen to people who not only had a good experience but also to people who didn't have a good trip." Still it's the right decision. "It makes you a better hospital."

In one area, for example, Persichetti is helping Emory nurses tweak bedside reporting procedures at shift change. He reminds them that even though patients may be unable to respond, they can still hear and see. 

He also reminds the nurses to bring the spouse into the process. The patient is in the bed getting all the attention, but the spouse needs to be brought into the center too. "I've been married for 42 years," he says. "My wife is a part of me. While I'm waiting for a heart, I need my wife and kids close to me. Family is as important as the medicine you give me."

Persichetti suggested that more frequent updates be provided to patients in the laboratory waiting room on the sixth floor at Emory University Hospital, a place he knows intimately from having spent so much time there. Now, standard operating procedure is to have a nurse come out to update patients if their wait time extends beyond 20 minutes, and a new bulletin board gives patients additional information on upcoming health events like screenings or flu shots.

Persichetti also has visited many areas within Emory Healthcare in his role as patient advocate. He and his new heart willingly go wherever he is invited. Recently, he toured the labs to meet the technicians that process hundreds of vials of blood each day. He was there to remind them that they hold someone's life in their hands, that each vial of blood belongs to a person, that the work they do—although behind the scenes and sometimes unglamorous or under-recognized—is important.

When the people with whom he speaks wonder if Persichetti has changed after his transplant, his answer is a resounding yes. "I think it's made me more loving," he says. He has seen two more grandchildren come into his family since his transplant (he now has six in all), and he's not shy about speaking of his love for his family. He loves speaking to groups to raise awareness about giving life through transplant and particularly to young people. He loves Emory.

"If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here," he says. "That's what gets you through—faith, family, and the care you receive."  EH

Table of Contents

Emory Health - Winter 2010