When Lester Walters, a 59 year-old Berea native, had a heart attack, his journey to heart transplantation began. But he first required an artificial heart.

Mechanical heart keeps Berea man living, loving as he waits for transplant

Relaxing in a recliner in the corner of his ICU room, Lester Walters is all smiles. His red hair askew, he casually jokes with his wife and the nurses who come in regularly to check on him. The 59-year-old Berea native is waiting to be listed for a heart transplant, but he’s already one step ahead of most patients on the list – as of Dec. 12, 2016, Walters no longer has a failing heart.

Instead, a special machine has replaced it: the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart, a battery-powered device that contains the same components as a real human heart and serves as a bridge to transplant.

“I feel great,” Walters said, the machine humming and pulsing like an air compressor in the background. “I feel about as good as one can.”

The first sign of heart problems

Walters’ journey toward a transplant began 17 years ago when he suffered a heart attack. Because he was adopted as a child, he had no knowledge of any heart-related medical history that may have been a risk factor. Doctors discovered Walters had atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can cause poor blood flow. He had a pacemaker and an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) installed to “shock” his heart back into a regular rhythm if he experienced a life-threatening arrhythmia.

Walters resumed his normal lifestyle. He retired from Berea College in 2013 after 31 years of service and spent time taking care of his farm in Madison County. Seven years ago, the widower met his second wife, B.J. Pittman, and the two have spent their retirement fishing, raising chickens and gardening.

But by January 2015, his heart problems began to worsen. After a stint in another local hospital and a bacterial infection, he was referred to the UK Gill Heart Institute for more serious treatment. By the time he arrived, his body was swollen from edema – fluid retention caused by poor blood flow, where pressure in the blood vessels increases and fluid is forced from the vessels into body tissues.

Dr. Maya Guglin, medical director of UK’s Mechanical Circulatory Support Program, was the first to see Walters at UK. Her initial course of treatment focused on using medications to eliminate the swelling.

“We treated him with diuretics, beta blockers and other heart-failure medications,” Guglin said. “We managed to stabilize him for many months.”

Three shocks in a row

Then in early December 2016, Walters’ ICD went off once, then twice and then a third time a short while later, which knocked him unconscious. Although Walters had been shocked before – including one memorable time where his son caught him mid-fall and received a shock himself – he’d never experienced three shocks in a row.

Pittman rushed him to UK Chandler Hospital, where he was admitted. Walters had developed ventricular tachycardia (VT), a regular but very fast heart rate caused by improper electrical activity in the heart ventricles. The VT became incessant – a “VT storm,” as Guglin describes it – and his ICD ultimately shocked him 21 times over the course of a single day. Despite two alcohol ablations to attempt to kill off the misfiring heart cells, Walters’ heart was simply too damaged and scarred for the procedure to work.

He needed a heart transplant, but he was far too sick to survive one. The team placed Walters on ECMO, a treatment that provides support for patients with extreme cardiac and respiratory failure, to stabilize his condition.

Most patients with end-stage heart failure like Walters would then receive a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a mechanical device that helps the heart pump blood throughout the body and allows the patient the chance to recover and gain back their strength. But in Walters’ case, the LVAD wasn’t enough.

“The LVAD was not an appropriate option in this case because of the VT,” said UK cardiothoracic transplant surgeon Dr. Alexis Shafii. “It could help his circulation, but it wouldn’t stop the electrical problem with his heart.”

The solution: Go ahead and remove the heart.

A bridge to transplant

On Dec. 13, Shafii performed the surgery to install the Total Artificial Heart in Walters, making him just the fourth patient at UK to receive the device as a bridge to transplant.

After the weeks of rapid deterioration leading up to his emergency hospital visit, Walters was blunt about his expectations going into surgery.

“I expected to die,” he said.

But the surgery went well.

“He immediately had a better color,” Pittman said.

From there, it was just a matter of time and work to regain his strength. Walters spent 10 weeks in the cardiovascular ICU, carefully monitored by Shafii and ICU staff. With the Total Artificial Heart keeping his heart rate at a steady 125 beats per minute for optimal blood flow, Walters soon began walking with the rolling power supply for his Total Artificial Heart, called the Companion 2 hospital driver, and an entourage of nurses in tow.

At first, he could only make it to the door of his room before needing to return to bed. But as the weeks went on, he worked his way up to twice-daily laps around the ICU.

“Starting out, it was really tough,” Walters said. “But I got to where I could walk a little more each day.”

Taking it ‘one day at a time’

In early February, he was stable enough to be switched to the Freedom portable driver, a smaller, wearable power supply for the Total Artificial Heart. The Freedom driver can be carried in a small backpack or shoulder bag and allows the patient to leave the hospital while they wait for a donor heart. Because of his progress, Walters was moved down to the cardiovascular telemetry unit, with hopes of being both listed for a transplant and discharged soon.

Dr. Navin Rajagopalan, medical director of heart transplantation at UK, notes that Walters’ steady improvement is a testament not only to his personal strength, but that of Pittman, who has been her husband’s rock through it all.

“Mr. Walters has made tremendous progress in the weeks following surgery,” Rajagopalan said. “It’s a testament to his strong determination and courage. But his wife has also been by his side every step of the way, providing encouragement and optimism, which has helped him in his recovery.”

And on this day, when the heart is on the minds of people across the country, Walters marks it as just another day in the journey that began with his initial heart attack 17 years ago. He and Pittman try not to think too far ahead, but focus on living in the present.

“I just take it one day at a time,” he said.

Media inquiries: Allison Perry, UK Public Relations, allison.perry@uky.edu.


See Lester Walters talk about his journey toward heart transplantation.


Next steps:

Dr. Gretchen Wells writes a lot of prescriptions and orders a lot of tests. But she says the most rewarding thing she dispenses is hope.

Video: Dr. Gretchen Wells talks hearts and her passion for women’s health

Dr. Gretchen Wells writes a lot of prescriptions and orders a lot of tests. But the most rewarding thing she dispenses is hope, she says. As director of the Women’s Heart Heath Program at the UK Gilll Heart & Vascular Institute, she helps Kentucky women enjoy longer, fuller lives with healthy hearts.

In Kentucky, the mortality rate from heart disease is among the nation’s highest, and Wells understands that in the fight against women’s heart issues, prevention is especially important. There are other issues to tackle as well, she says, including:

  • The biology of heart disease is different in men than in women, so new ways of detection and treatment need to be explored to address those differences.
  • More women are surviving breast cancer only to develop heart problems relatedto chemotherapy.
  • Young women with pregnancy complications such as pre-eclampsia are at higher risk for heart disease later in life.

All of these and more are what bring Wells to the office every day. She spends her time collaborating across campus to establish testing, identify biomarkers and explore treatments tailored specifically to the needs of women with heart disease.

But Wells says the best part of her job is developing relationships with her patients. “They teach me about family, they teach me about forgiveness and they teach me about love,” she says.

Watch the video below to see why Wells says “the best is yet to come for the women of Kentucky.”


Next steps:

10 things to know about women's heart health

Top 10 things to know about women’s heart health

By Dr. Gretchen Wells, director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute’s Women’s Heart Health Program.

Dr. Gretchen Wells

Dr. Gretchen Wells

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, but it often goes unnoticed until it’s too late. Part of that comes from the fact that women’s hearts are different from men’s in certain ways, which can affect the way women develop heart disease and experience heart attack symptoms.

People assume all heart attacks feel like a crushing in the chest, but often, and for women in particular, the symptoms of a heart attack can be quite different. That’s why it’s so important to teach women what to look for and how to take the best care of their hearts.

Check out my top 10 list of things women should know about their hearts, and be sure to listen to an interview I did recently about heart health below!

1. Know your symptoms

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
  • If you’re having symptoms, call 911!

2. Quit smoking. Just do it. You know you should. UK HealthCare has resources to help you quit. Check them out.

3. “Waist it.” Watch what you eat! Women have an increased risk of heart attack if their waist circumference is big.

4. Move it! The Nurses’ Health Study demonstrated that women who exercise (brisk walking) 30 minutes five out of seven days a week reduce their risk of a heart attack by 50 percent.

5. Know your numbers! Know your blood glucose (sugar), cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. If these are abnormal, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to improve them.

6. Don’t be sweet! If you’re diabetic, get treatment. This is a far greater risk factor in women than in men.

7. And while we’re at it – treat your blood pressure, too.

8. Talk to your doctor about whether or not you should be taking an aspirin (or any other medications for that matter). Women over the age of 65 should take a daily aspirin for prevention. The recommendations vary in other groups.

9. Don’t worry, be happy! The type-A personality has been strongly associated with heart attacks in men, and we’re learning more about optimism and positivity in women.

10. Call your mother (that’s my mother’s suggestion). Find out from her about your family history. Heart disease runs in families. Find out exactly what type of heart disease your family has and discuss it with your doctor.


Dr. Wells was recently interviewed on Behind the Blue, the University of Kentucky’s podcast. She was joined by Gail Cohen, a patient who experienced firsthand the dangers of undetected heart disease. Listen below to hear Gail’s story as well as tips from Dr. Wells about how you can improve your heart health.


Next steps:

Meet Dr. Susan Smyth, director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute

Making the RoundsOur latest Making the Rounds interview features Dr. Susan Smyth, medical director of the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute. Dr. Smyth is a researcher and physician focused on treating patients with bleeding and clotting disorders.

What do you enjoy most about being a heart doctor?

The field of cardiology is just extraordinary. It’s incredibly rewarding to be part of a field that has done so much for our society and to every day be thinking about, “How can we do this better? How can we keep people out of the hospital? How can we make them live longer? How can we make them feel better? How can we get rid of their suffering?” To be able to translate something that we observe in a clinical study to a patient and make their lives better is incredibly rewarding.

Why is research such an important part of your job?

The thing that drives me is to think about how we apply the scientific method to alleviating pain and suffering, extending life, and promoting health. How can we apply the knowledge that we have today so that we can improve tomorrow what we’re doing for folks across the United States?

What do you want patients to know about the care team at Gill?

We have a phenomenal care team at the University of Kentucky. We have staff whose entire job is to be there for the patient, for the family member and for the loved one and to support them throughout their journey.

Know that when you come here, you will be surrounded by a team that is dedicated to taking care of you.

Tell us about your interest in women’s heart health.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, and a lot of people don’t realize that. As a female cardiologist, it’s something that’s very close to my heart and a lot of my patients’ hearts, and we do have a very large focus on women’s heart health at Gill.

Another thing that I’m passionate about is trying to get more women in medicine and science in general. We do not have enough female cardiologists. Less than 15 percent of the cardiologists in the United States are female. That’s a number that needs to change. And so while we think about how we can improve heart health in women, I also want to encourage women to consider this as a career because I can’t think of a more rewarding specialty to go into.

You were born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Do you root for the Wildcats or the Tar Heels?

I am a native North Carolinian but I changed colors of blue when I moved to Kentucky. I continue to bleed blue, but it’s a little bit darker now than when I was younger. I have been in Kentucky for a little over 10 years and I cheer for the Wildcats, much to my mom’s chagrin!


Watch our video interview with Dr. Smyth, where she talks more about the types of conditions she treats and what patients can expect when they come to Gill.


Next steps:

The celebration of women's heart health in Albert B. Chandler hospital featured giveaways, prizes and simple tips to make your diet more heart-healthy.

‘Gill Goes Red’ shares treats and tips in celebration of Heart Month

Kate Breeden closed her eyes as she took a bite, trying to concentrate on the flavors of the food she was sampling.

“Well, it’s definitely a brownie,” she said, “but I have no idea what the mystery ingredient is. Maybe carob instead of chocolate. Or dates? But I’m not 100 percent sure to be honest.”

Breeden was among dozens of women – and a few men – gathered on Feb. 3 to launch American Heart Month at UK with “Gill Goes Red.”

The celebration of women’s heart health in the Pavilion A atrium of Albert B. Chandler hospital featured giveaways, prizes, and simple tips and substitutions to make your diet more heart-healthy. But the most popular attraction? Free samples of tasty treats with a “secret ingredient” that made each treat more heart-friendly.

Taking baby steps to better heart health

“Every New Year, thousands of people resolve to eat healthier and lose weight, but lose their momentum within a few weeks and return to their old habits,” said Dr. Gretchen Wells, director of the Women’s Heart Health Program at the UK Gill Heart Institute, and one of the day’s speakers. “We encourage people to take baby steps to improve their diet as a long-term path to healthier eating and better heart health.”

Vanessa Oliver, a dietitian with the UK’s Health and Wellness program, shared with the audience her tips for making foods more nutrient-rich as a way to take those baby steps.

“Women’s risk of heart attack has been directly related to waist circumference,” Oliver said. “Making an effort to enhance the quality of the choices you make can be an effective way to reduce waist circumference without a sense of self-denial.”

Oliver suggested a few simple changes that can help achieve that goal, including eating brightly colored foods (usually fruits or vegetables) instead of “white” or “beige” foods, increasing dietary fiber by choosing whole grains over processed ones, and reducing sugar intake, particularly from sodas and fancy coffee drinks, which contain large amounts of “hidden” sugars.

“One of the best ways to start making those changes is to keep a food journal, either by writing it down, using an app or even taking a picture,” Oliver said. “Doing so can help you be aware of what you’re eating and identify places where you can make changes.”

The secret ingredients

At the end of the program, the secret ingredient for each treat was announced to a chorus of laughter and exclamations of surprise.

Jennifer Vissing, the nurse coordinator for the Gill’s Structural Heart Program, correctly guessed that the brownie’s secret ingredient was black beans.

“Black beans provide extra fiber and complex carbohydrates, which can improve blood cholesterol levels ” Oliver said. “The brownies are made with applesauce and blueberries as well, reducing the amount of refined sugar and adding a dash of antioxidants.”

The prize for correctly guessing that the chocolate chip “cookie dough” was actually a form of hummus went to Maria Kraemer, a postdoc in the Saha Cardiovascular Research Center.

“Chickpeas are a more complex carbohydrate than the white flour in traditional cookie dough, which makes you feel fuller longer,” Oliver said. “On top of that, the recipe is much lower in fat than the real thing, since it contains no butter or eggs.”

The granola was the true mystery treat, and no one was able to guess its secret ingredient.

“Most granolas are made with a lot of oil, which greatly increases fat content,” Oliver explained. “This granola is made with made with egg whites instead of oil.”

‘One of many ways’ to improve nutrition

Oliver reminded attendees that portion size is also important.

“You should be able to indulge every once in a while, and these are wonderful options, but even black bean brownies aren’t healthy if you eat half a pan,” she said. “Think of these as one of many ways you can improve nutrition for you and your family.”

Vissing, like many of the participants, voiced her enthusiasm for the day’s events.

“I really enjoyed learning more about how to make anything healthier, and it was fun,” she said.

Wells was pleased that attendees came away from the day with some real information to help them live healthier lives.

“We wanted to have fun, we wanted to celebrate women and we wanted to empower women to make changes in their lifestyle,” Wells said. “I think Gill Goes Red 2017 achieved all three.”

If you want to make these treats at home, the brownie recipe comes from Forks Over Knives, the granola recipe comes from Epicurious and the “Cookie Faux” hummus recipe comes from The Wannabe Chef.


Check out video footage and pictures from the event.

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Next steps:

UK HealthCare’s Gill Heart Institute is at the forefront of regenerative medicine, putting us on the verge of a potentially world-changing breakthrough that doesn’t just treat damage, but actually heals the heart itself.

The story behind our new Power of Advanced Medicine TV spot

What happens when a world-class surgeon and a renowned researcher have an idea for a revolutionary new way to heal the heart? Our exciting new TV spot tells how the Power of Advanced Medicine could change life after heart attack. Watch the video at the end of this post!

A revolutionary treatment to heal the heart

Using a patient’s own bone marrow cells, we can now regenerate healthy heart muscle after a heart attack. It’s as complicated as it sounds, and it’s equally profound in the realm of regenerative medicine.

Explore how the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute is at the forefront of regenerative medicine, putting us on the verge of a potentially world-changing breakthrough that doesn’t just treat damage, but actually heals the heart itself.

It all started in a hallway

The genesis of this project was nothing short of fortuitous. Because UK HealthCare is one of the few institutions where clinical, research and other expertise are housed under the same roof, a chance encounter becomes more likely. Dr. Ahmed Abdel-Latif, a cardiologist at Gill and regenerative medicine researcher, ran into cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Michael Sekela, and the idea took off from there.

“You cannot do this type of research as a single person. It’s a huge deal and a huge commitment, from the leadership in the university and in the hospital and the medical school. Everyone works well together, everyone is supportive this makes it an ideal place for someone like me and for this type of therapy. It’s not just one physician or one scientist. It’s a whole system,” Abdel-Latif said.

What is the problem we’re solving?

There’s more to a heart attack than the event itself. When you have a heart attack, the heart suffers irreparable damage—the symptoms of which will reveal themselves for years after. These symptoms, commonly known as heart failure, are what we’re aiming to solve.

Instead of managing treatment for the remainder of a patient’s life, we’re using precision, regenerative medicine to heal the damaged tissue. This not only improves the functional capacity of a patient’s most vital organ, it significantly improves one’s quality of life. It’s here we believe this treatment will have its most profound and far reaching effects.

What is regenerative medicine?

The field of regenerative medicine is exciting, but not new. The first successful regenerative therapies such as bone marrow and organ transplants took place in the seventies. But new technologies and information have opened doors for treatments that seemed novel only months ago.

In short, regenerative medicine has the potential to fully heal damaged tissues and organs, offering solutions and hope for people who have conditions previously determined as beyond repair.

“What’s good about UK is that we are able to offer this therapy to our patients early, before it becomes a standard of care,” Abdel-Latif said. “So patients at UK will have access to this therapy through clinical trials. They will have access to this therapy before anyone else.”

How does this procedure work?

“What we’re trying to do is focusing a specific area of regrowing blood vessels to heart muscle that doesn’t have enough blood flow,” Sekela said. “And theoretically, what we’re doing is taking something that should turn into scar tissue, and let that be muscle. And if we can do that, it’ll explode this field in cardiovascular surgery and in cardiovascular medicine.”

Who is this procedure for?

Eventually, everyone. Because we’re still in the early days of this therapy, only certain, qualifying patients will have access to it. But the prevailing theory is that all patients suffering from severe heart failure will qualify for this procedure within a few years. And down the road, those suffering from more mild cases could have their symptoms addressed as well.

What is the potential impact?

This procedure could easily help millions of people. In the U.S. alone, there are billions of dollars being spent on care for heart failure patients. These types of therapies will not only improve lifestyle and life expectancy for patients with severe heart disease, but will have a profound economic impact as well.

If this procedure is successfully implemented, it could do more than change cardiovascular treatment it could shift a cornerstone in medicine itself.

How long before this is standard procedure?

Experts estimate it that regenerative therapies like this one will be the standard of care within five to 10 years. There is a litany of factors that could play into this, such as governmental influence, the pace of clinical trials, and funding. Nevertheless, regenerative medicine is undoubtedly seeing advancements by the day and UK HealthCare is at the forefront.


Next steps:

What African-Americans should know about their hearts

What African-Americans should know about their hearts

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for all Americans, but the threat of heart-related complications is most severe for African-Americans.

Dr. Ted Wright

Dr. Ted Wright

Data from the American Heart Association shows that African-Americans are at a higher risk for heart disease than white Americans and the prevalence of high blood pressure in black Americans is among the highest in the world. Because African-Americans are disproportionately affected by heart disease, it’s important to understand why that’s the case and what can be done to promote a healthy heart.

To celebrate Black History Month and American Heart Month, we spoke with Dr. Ted Wright, a heart surgeon at the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute who specializes in heart rhythm disorders, to find out more about how heart disease impacts African-American adults and what you can do to improve your heart health.

Why are African-Americans more susceptible to heart disease than other groups?

Wright: The primary reason is that hypertension, or high blood pressure, is much higher in the African-American community. About two out of every five African-American adults have high blood pressure, and fewer than half have it under control.

What other factors contribute to higher rates of heart disease in the African-American community?

Wright: Other factors include obesity and diabetes. The prevalence of obesity and inactivity tend to be a bit higher in the African-American community, and there’s some research indicating that African-Americans metabolize salt in a way that may contribute to high blood pressure.

What are preventive measures a person can take to improve their heart health?

Wright: Lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on getting your risk factors under control. Here’s what I recommend: Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, don’t smoke or quit smoking right away, limit your alcohol consumption, and know your family history. If others in your family have had heart disease, you might be more at risk for it yourself.

What else should people be doing to manage their risk factors?

Wright: In addition to lifestyle changes, be informed and know your numbers: blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight. Work with your health care provider to manage these numbers through lifestyle changes and medications.

Dr. Wright is a heart surgeon at the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute. He is UK’s leading expert in AFib treatment and is the only doctor in the region performing the Mini-MAZE procedure.


Next steps:

  • Want to improve your heart health? Understanding just a few numbers, like your blood pressure and cholesterol, can tell you a whole lot about your overall health.
  • Twin brothers Jon Wes and Gardner Adams were diagnosed with a rare heart rhythm disorder called Brugada syndrome. After being treated successfully at Gill, the brothers are helping researchers at UK understand inherited heart disorders.

Heart health 101: Know your numbers

February is American Heart Month and the perfect time to check on your ticker. When it comes to a heart health, a few numbers can tell you a whole lot. Get to know your numbers for blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight. If these are too high, you are more likely to have heart disease and other health problems. Getting your numbers checked regularly and knowing what they mean is a great first step toward better health.

Here are the basics:

Blood sugar – aim for less than 100

  • What it is: Your blood sugar measures exactly that  how much sugar is in your blood. Elevated blood sugar can lead to diabetes, and an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
  • What should your number be? Before eating, your blood sugar should be less than 100, and two hours after eating it should be less than 140.
  • Take action: Avoid foods high in carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta and desserts), which can elevate your blood sugar, and work to incorporate more raw, cooked or roasted veggies into your daily diet.

Blood pressure – aim for 120/80 or lower

  • What it is: Blood pressure measures the force of blood against the arteries when your beats (top number) and rests (bottom number). High blood pressure, or hypertension, can damage your heart, arteries and kidneys if left untreated.
  • What should your number be?
    • 120/80 is considered normal.
    • 140/90 or higher is considered high.
  • Take action: Incorporate regular exercise, which can help maintain a healthy blood pressure, into your daily routine. Limiting sodium intake to about 1 teaspoon of salt (2,300 milligrams) each day and reducing your alcohol intake can also help.

Blood cholesterol – aim for less than 200

  • What it is: Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver. If you have too much in your arteries, it can make it hard for your blood to circulate. Sustained high cholesterol can increase your risk for heart disease and heart attacks.
  • What should your number be?
    • A total cholesterol reading of 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) is good.
    • 200-239 mg/dL is borderline high, indicating some risk for heart disease.
    • A reading of 240 mg/dL or above is considered high.
  • Take action: Cholesterol is impacted in part by your diet, so reducing your intake of unhealthy foods like fried dishes and rich desserts can help improve your number.

Body mass index – aim for 18.6-24.9

  • What it is: Your ideal body weight takes into account your gender, age, height and frame. Your body mass index, or BMI, uses your height as well as your weight to give you a better idea of how much of your body is composed of fat.
  • What should your number be? The higher your BMI, the greater your risk of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
    • A healthy BMI is between 18.6 and 24.9.
    • A BMI between 25-29.9 is considered overweight.
    • Anything above 30 is considered obese.
  • Take action: Eat a healthy diet with lots of vegetables and increase your weekly activity and exercise. Burning 500 extra calories a day can help you lose up to one pound a week.

Next step:

Gardner and Jon Wes Adams

Twin brothers’ rare heart condition sparks unique research opportunity

In 2015, identical twins Gardner and Jon Wes Adams, then in their mid-20s, both nearly died when their hearts suddenly stopped beating. The incidents happened months apart, but the cause was the same: Brugada syndrome, a rare congenital heart rhythm disorder.

Jon Wes’ heart stopped first while he was running at The Arboretum at UK. Bystander CPR kept him alive until emergency medical personnel arrived. At the UK Gill Heart Institute, doctors ran a battery of tests to determine why this healthy, physically fit young man went into sudden cardiac arrest.

As soon as the results indicated Brugada syndrome, the care team knew they needed to test Gardner, since he has the exact same genes as his twin brother. They weren’t surprised to find that he had the syndrome, too.

Understanding the role of genetics

By that time, Jon Wes had received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) that could detect abnormal heart rhythms and provide an electrical shock to restore a normal heartbeat and prevent cardiac arrest. Gardner and the doctors decided that he should receive an ICD, too. While sudden cardiac arrest in Brugada syndrome is uncommon, the chances seem greater if it’s happened to a family member, especially one with identical genetic material.

Only months later, Gardner’s heart stopped while he was running, and the ICD saved his life.

This unusual clinical case – genetically identical twins with a rare heart condition – prompted one of their doctors, heart rhythm specialist Samy-Claude Elayi, to seek a greater understanding of Brugada. Genetic testing revealed a specific mutation behind the condition in Jon Wes and Gardner. The mutation causes the membrane of the heart cells to stop conducting the electrical current that powers the heart. It turned out that their non-twin brother and their father also had the mutation, but no symptoms. Elayi wanted to know why the condition was presenting so differently in family members with the same genetic mutation.

With support from a high-impact pilot award from the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science, Elayi and a multidisciplinary group of researchers are trying to find answers. The team includes Brian Delisle, PhD, associate professor of physiology and a recognized expert in the field of the basic mechanisms of congenital cardiac arrhythmias; Mark Farman, PhD, associate director of UK HealthCare Genomics and professor of plant pathology; and Jonathan Satin, PhD, professor of physiology. The case inverts the oft-quoted paradigm of “bench to bedside,” a reference to the trajectory of science that starts in the lab and then progress to patient care.

“This is a really fantastic opportunity because we have different members from a single family from whom we can get cells,” Elayi said. “We are trying to do a specific analysis of how what is really going on with this family and this gene because this disease is still very poorly understood.”

Testing blood cells

The research team is looking at cells from Jon Wes and his non-twin brother, as well as the rest of the family, with the hypothesis that there will be differences in each of them. Blood samples were sent to collaborators at the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, where the blood cells are being transformed into inducible pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) – cells that can become any type of cell in body. The iPSCs will then be sent back to UK, where Satin will make them into heart cells that the team can study.

The team hopes to make a certain type of cardiomyocyte, or heart muscle cell, that few labs have been able to create. If they can do it, it would be a major advancement of this science at UK. They also hope that better knowledge of the genetic factors of Brugada could advance precision medicine in the field.

“This case is at the intersection of developmental biology, functional biology and molecular biology,” Delisle said. “Hopefully we can use this approach of reprogramming patient cells into stem cells to better understand their heart condition. And it could be a platform for understanding other types of congenital arrhythmias.”


Jon Wes and Dr. Elayi have taken their story into the community to talk with students about CPR and heart health. Check out a video of a recent visit they made to Lexington’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts.


Next steps:

‘Gill Goes Red’ on Feb. 3 in support of heart health in Kentucky

In February, institutions around Lexington will celebrate Heart Month with activities that promote healthy habits such as exercise, smoking cessation, stress reduction and improved diet.

This year’s ‘Gill Goes Red’ will involve treats and prizes

UK’s Gill Heart Institute will focus on ways to make your diet more heart-healthy with a celebration and information about simple ingredient substitutes that can make your transition to a healthy diet easier.

“Gill Goes Red” will take place at noon on Friday, Feb. 3 in the hospital’s Pavilion A atrium. There will be giveaways and free treats with a “secret ingredient” that makes them a healthier option. People who correctly guess the secret ingredient will be eligible to win a prize.

Starting a healthy diet? Taking baby steps can help.

According to Gretchen Wells, MD, PhD, director of Women’s Heart Health at the Gill, excess dietary fat, sugar and salt all contribute to poor heart health and can cause diabetes, heart attack or stroke, among other diseases. However, she acknowledges that drastic changes in diet can be difficult to maintain long-term.

“For some people, making gradual changes in their diet reduces the likelihood of failure,” said Wells. “We encourage people to make significant changes to reduce the amount of fat, sugar and salt in their diet, but if taking baby steps over time increases their chances of success, I’m all for it.”

Finding ways to increase nutrients in food

Vanessa Oliver with LiveWell, UK’s Health and Wellness program, will be a featured speaker at Gill Goes Red. Oliver will share her tips on easy substitutions and add-ins to increase nutrient value in foods.

“I’m often looking for ways to add healthy ingredients into meals,” Oliver said. “As long as people pay attention to portion size, there are easy ways to make foods healthy and tasty at the same time.”


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