Windsor man waits for new heart

Published 10:28 am Saturday, March 20, 2010

WINDSOR—Mike Stephens’ doctors gave him some devastating news when he was hospitalized with heart problems in January.

“They told me then if I didn’t do something, I only had six to 12 months to live,” the 52-year-old Windsor resident said.

While it was upsetting news, Stephens wasn’t caught completely off guard.

“I have had heart issues for about five or six years,” he said.

After a heart procedure in 2005, he was told he might need a transplant, but he was able to hold on – until the recent visit to the doctor.

“The heart is functioning, but it’s not strong enough to pump the blood,” Stephens said.

He was placed on the heart transplant waiting list and was told it could be from a few months to five years.

On Feb. 1, Stephens underwent invasive surgery to implant a left ventricular assist device in his chest at Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk. The mechanical device helps maintain the ability of a weak heart to pump blood through the body.

“They call it a bridge. It’ll keep me until I get the heart transplant,” he said.

The device runs off of 12-volt batteries, which are connected though a cable that comes out of Stephens’ side. The portable batteries allow him to carry on some normal activities.

“I am able to get out,” he said. “I have to be real particular about what I do and where I go.”

At night, he unhooks the battery and connects to a machine that runs off electricity on the house current.

“So it always has power going to it,” Stephens said. “If I lose the power, it’d be pretty bad.”

The device, he said, pumps blood at 9,200 rpm.

“That’s more rpms than most racecars use,” Stephens said.

To make sure that everything is OK with his heart and the device, Stephens has weekly checkups in Norfolk.

“If anything’s wrong, they put you back in the hospital,” he said.

Stephens had never heard of any device like this before doctors told him it was an option, but once he was told what his life expectancy would be without the device, it wasn’t a hard decision.

“I’ve got too much that I’d like to do still,” he said. “I really gave it to the Lord and asked him to walk me through it, and this is where it led. So far, so good.”

After the surgery, Stephens was unconscious for five days.

“That’s what scared all of us,” said Stephens’ stepfather, Bill Blake, one of many family members who take turns sitting with him to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Stephens, a father of four, said his family, including fiancée Judy Robinson, has been extremely supportive.

“They spent hours, nights and days at the hospital while I was in there,” he said.

The community and churches have also shown support.

“I’ve been blessed with good family and friends, and the outpouring of support has just been unbelievable.”

Stephens said he feels “a whole lot better than I did” but still not “great.” When he came home to Windsor about two weeks after his surgery, a hospital employee came and trained local paramedics on the bridge device and put him on a list to be high-priority when power failures occur.

At any time, Stephens could get a call that a heart is available for transplantation.

“I’m ready. I’m not sure my folks are, but I’m ready,” he said. A competitive softball player for 29 years, Stephens has always been into sports.

“I’ve been athletic and on the go all the time, and this sort of hinders me,” he said.

Since his retirement in 2005, Stephens has been a substitute teacher at Isle of Wight Academy and is also a volunteer coach at the school.

“Right now, I’m missing baseball,” he said. “They very well could compete for the state championship in private schools this year.”

Members of the school’s basketball teams signed a ball to give Stephens.

“I was tickled that they thought enough of me to send that ball,” he said. “I’d like to return in the winter for basketball if I can get this done and get healthy.”

Between the left ventricular assist device and the heart transplantation, Stephens is looking at “well over $1 million in surgeries.”

To help cover medical expenses, Stephens’ sister, Karla Cobb, said a fiddle autographed by Charlie Daniels is being raffled off.

The Isle of Wight Fair Committee is also holding a benefit concert and barbecue May 1. Proceeds will benefit Stephens and Rhonda Perry, both of whom are committee members.

The benefit, called Chairs Helping Chairs, will be held at the Joel C. Bradshaw Fairgrounds from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. The event will include a cornhole tournament for both social and competitive players. The registration fee is $20 per team. For more information about the cornhole tournament contact Gary Briley at (757) 647-8132.