Downey man receives ultra rare artificial heart transplant
DOWNEY – For most people, being described as “heartless” would be considered unflattering, insulting and downright rude. But for 55-year-old Downey resident Johnny Lemucchi, it’s a more accurate term than many might realize.
Lemucchi is a long-time resident of Downey, having lived in the city for 30 years. He has been husband to Carol for 34 years, father of three, and newly a grandfather.
Lemucchi has been highly active in youth, school, and adult league athletics during his years in Downey, especially in soccer where he refereed and coached, including a National Games winning team in 2012. Lemucchi estimates that he has coached over 1500 kids.
However, Lemucchi’s life took an extreme unexpected turn just a few months ago when he went in for a routine physical.
“I went for a physical [and] the doctor told me that he’s calling the paramedics,” said Lemucchi. “I said ‘for what?,’ and he says ‘you’re having a heart attack.”
Before receiving the shocking news, Lemucchi says that he had been keeping up with his regular routine, including his soccer activities; he had even refereed a bunch of games over the Labor Day Weekend, only ever feeling dehydrated, if anything.
According to test results, doctors were able to determine that his heart attack had occurred sometime in September, however Lemucchi didn’t go in for his fateful physical until November.
Lemucchi’s entered Whittier Medical Center Nov. 6. His heart was showing only 14% outflow.
Originally, the plan was to implant a defibrillator, however complications arose and Lemucchi was told nothing could be done and was sent home.
In December, Lemucchi went to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, with practically the same result. However, a series of events left doctors uncomfortable with sending him home.
Then, on one particular Tuesday evening, Lemucchi’s heart rate dramatically spiked and never came down. This singular event was the catalyst that caused doctors to finally decide to act and insert a defibrillator.
Eventually Lemucchi was allowed to come home. However, it wasn’t long before another incident occurred and Lemucchi was right back in the hospital.
That was Sunday. Monday Lemucchi went into cardiac arrest.
Lemucchi was prepared for a heart transplant at Whittier. A special ambulance with a nurse, surgeon, and two technicians transported him back to Cedars-Sinai for the procedure.
Lemucchi’s heart was removed and replaced with a total artificial heart.
During the procedure, a prosthetic heart was implanted and connected to an external machine by tubes. The machine uses air to constantly and consistently pump Lemmuchi’s blood throughout his body. According to Lemucchi, he is one of about 50 people worldwide with the total artificial heart, and one of about 20 to 30 nationwide.
Lemucchi now carries a backpack that holds his machine, along with spare batteries. He’s had his artificial heart for over 160 days.
Since the procedure, Lemucchi says that he has gotten some weird looks, raised eyebrows, and curious questions about the machine he now carries around with him. While he says some people do get “a little goofy” about the subject, he has no issues explaining his condition.
He also has no qualms about being kept alive by a machine, and has never felt less-than-human because of it.
“I’d rather be looked at than viewed,” said Lemucchi. “…I’m alive…to me, if I didn’t have it I wouldn’t be here….I’m not gonna give up on life.”
Lemucchi now hopes that his experience can educate physician and patient alike, and even potentially save lives.
“Even the cardiologists - they don’t know about this,” said Lemucchi. “What they’re doing is they’re putting people on hospice and then just letting them die. And there’s no reason…”
According to Lemmuchi, he is around sixth on the list for a heart transplant, however that number can easily fluctuate from day to day depending on need. His artificial heart is by no means meant to be a permanent fix, however he describes it as a “bridge” until he eventually gets the phone call from the hospital that he and his family are so anxiously awaiting.