Johnny, 55 "Widow Maker" Heart Attack and Cardiomyopathy

At a Glance:

  • Johnny was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy after suffering a “widow-maker” heart attack.
  • When he went into cardiac arrest a few weeks later, he was in desperate need of a heart transplant, but a donor heart wasn’t available.
  • To save his life, doctors implanted the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH) as a bridge to transplant.
  • Johnny was discharged from the hospital to wait for a matching donor heart at home using the Freedom® Portable Driver, and after 203 days of support with the TAH, received a heart transplant.

Johnny, 55, has been a collegiate and high school soccer referee for the past 34 years. But heart failure nearly put him on the sidelines.

Johnny was first diagnosed with heart failure after an echocardiogram (EKG) revealed he was having a severe heart attack known as a “widow-maker.” A subsequent angiogram showed that his ejection fraction — the percentage of blood that leaves the heart each time it contracts — was only 14%. A normal ejection fraction is between 55% and 70%.

Doctors tried a number of interventions to treat Johnny’s heart failure, including stents and an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), but a few weeks later, he went into cardiac arrest. He was immediately placed on the heart transplant waiting list, but doctors feared he wouldn’t survive long enough to receive one. With time running out, doctors approached Johnny and his family about the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH).

“I knew that I needed a transplant,” said Johnny. “I said, ‘If it’s going to keep me alive, I’m for it 100 percent.’”

Johnny celebrating the one-year anniversary of his donor heart transplant.

The Total Artificial Heart is definitely a lifesaver. I felt 100 percent. I could’ve refereed soccer I felt so good. If you need it, do it, no hesitation. With hospice, you know the end is coming; with the Total Artificial Heart, you know the future is coming.



Doctors at Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles removed Johnny’s damaged heart and replaced it with the SynCardia TAH, restoring blood flow to his body and allowing him to begin his recovery from heart failure.

Just a few weeks later, Johnny was stable enough to be switched to the Freedom® Portable Driver, a smaller, lighter pump for the TAH, which allowed him to be discharged from the hospital to wait for a matching donor heart at home.

“I came home and I continued my life,” said Johnny, who watched his sons graduate from high school and college while supported by the TAH. “I played golf, did yard work, lifted weights. I walked 2 to 3 miles per day. The Freedom Driver wasn’t an inconvenience to me because I knew what it meant. Without this machine, I wouldn’t be here. I was proud of it. It was part of my life.”

Donor heart transplant

Six months later, Johnny received the heart transplant he’d been waiting for. Since then, he’s become a grandfather — a milestone that, prior to the TAH, he wasn’t sure he’d live to see — and resumed his role as a soccer referee.

Now that his heart transplant is behind him, Johnny is taking on a new challenge: training to compete as a cyclist and golfer in the Donate Life Transplant Games. To prepare, he’s riding his bike 125 miles a week and walking and running up to 10 miles a day.

Johnny’s motivation is his heart donor’s family, whom he hopes to meet one day. “There are no words I can say to thank them,” said Johnny. “They lost their 22-year-old son. Everything I’m doing, I’m doing for them. I really hope to meet them, so I can let them know that their son is still alive in me, so they can feel his heart beat.”

Photos ©2017 Art’s Camera Imaging Center