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A Change of Heart: La Jolla patient and UC San Diego doctor describe transplant beat

La Jollan Glen Rasmussen and Dr. Marcus Urey (right) from the UCSD Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center discusses heart-disease treatments during a Kiwanis Club meeting Dec. 13, 2019 at La Jolla Community Center.
(Photo by Barbara Burton Graf)

La Jolla resident, Kiwanian and chair of the La Jolla Community Center, Glen Rasmussen, has a new heart. He received a transplant at UC San Diego on July 20, 2019 and five months later on Dec. 13, he told his story during a Kiwanis Club meeting at La Jolla Community Center.

Rasmussen was diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis, he explained — a rare condition that creates deposits within the heart walls, making them thicker and less efficient to pump or receive blood.

Under the care of Dr. Marcus Urey — his cardiac physician and a member of the heart transplant team at the UCSD Sulpizio Cardiovascular Center — he first received a pacemaker.

“I was gradually losing my ability to function and one day I fainted outside my house and lost consciousness,” Rasmussen told those gathered, adding that during his evaluation for receiving the pacemaker, Urey suggested he be worked up for a heart transplant.

“He was kind of sneaky about it because I could not imagine having a heart transplant,” Rasmussen shared. “But since there is no cure for cardiac amyloidosis … I qualified.” It was less than three months later, at 5 p.m. on July 19 that Rasmussen received the phone call from UCSD that would change his life.

“They told me they had a heart for me,” he said. “The reality hit me then. But I was lucky, because at age 70, I was in good enough shape, and otherwise disease-free, to have a reasonable chance of survival. The next day, July 20, I had a new heart.

“Thanks to the surgical skills of Dr. Travis Pollema, the surgery was pain-free. I did not have to take any opioids, I even had no incision pain! Within a week, I was walking a mile around the ICU (intensive care unit).”

According to Urey, who is also an assistant professor at UCSD School of Medicine, individuals with amyloid affecting the heart average about three years survival after diagnosis without a transplant. In Rasmussen’s case, he had signs that his survival would be much shorter without a transplant.

By the numbers

Speaking about the general population, Dr. Urey explained that more than 600,000 individuals die from heart disease annually; it is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, and for those qualifying for a heart transplant, there are limited donated hearts that qualify for transplant.

Today, he continued, medical techniques are developing to address the gap of time between the availability of a donor’s heart and the time of transplantation; euphemistically, the “heart in a box” technology may be soon available, which allows the donated heart to remain viable longer since it can continue to be infused with blood, therefore enabling longer transport times of 24-48 hours.

Prior to this device, if a heart was not transplanted within a six-hour window, the risk of failure was substantial.

Other treatments

Urey also discussed other devices provided by UCSD Cardiovascular Department for heart patients, including a “VAD” (ventricular assist device), a mechanical pump implanted in a patient, which can replace the function of the left ventricle (the main pumping chamber of the heart). This device can assist patients waiting for transplant and those who may not qualify for other reasons. Individuals with VAD’s tote a battery pack powering these devices.

Rasmussen is one of a group of 69 heart transplant patients in 2019 who have received their transplant at UCSD.

Dr. Urey provided statistics that UCSD has the best one-year post transplant survival rate in the country.

Just five months out of surgery, Rasmussen said he is very happy to be talking, breathing, exercising and feeling better each day.

He expressed gratitude to the family of his donor and hopes to contact them soon.

“Life is most precious,” he said, adding that’s what he’s thankful for this holiday season.