Heart Failure Can't Beat Larry Lewis
Feb 24, 2018 Cedars-Sinai Staff
For 7 years, Larry Lewis had been suffering from fatigue, insomnia, and tenacious head colds—problems he knew stemmed from his ongoing heart problems.
A week later, the retired Desert Storm veteran and father of 4 had surgery to remove part of his heart and implant a device that would temporarily take over the job of pumping his blood.
The device, called the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart, helps the sickest of the sick while they wait for a heart transplant. It replaces the lower chambers of the heart and all 4 valves. An external driver, which looks like a backpack, powers the implant and enables it to pump.
Larry wasn't calling it quits yet. With his personal brand of optimism and determination—and the expertise of the cardiac care team at Cedars-Sinai—he was ready for the challenging road ahead.
"Cedars-Sinai provided the boost of confidence I needed," says Larry. "I knew the hospital's reputation, and as I got to know the doctors and staff I realized that everyone was a consummate professional."
Life before heart failure
Larry, the son of a Navy man and a stay-at-home mom, drew strength from his childhood experiences.
Growing up in Oakland, he attended a private school and had a comfortable life. But when he was barely a teenager, his family disintegrated. His parents divorced, and his dad moved to Southern California with Larry's older brothers. Shortly thereafter his mother suffered a debilitating stroke.
Determined not to become a statistic, as he puts it, Larry joined the armed forces. He spent the next 20 years in the Marine Corps, where he served as an aircraft maintenance data systems analyst, an advocate for victims of domestic violence, and a substance abuse counselor.
"My job was to fight for kids who couldn't fight for themselves. I knew that if those kids had an opportunity to thrive, they would."
After leaving the military, Larry dedicated himself to teaching. Already a kids' basketball coach and youth director at his church, he got his teaching credential and two master's degrees—in curriculum and instruction, and in educational leadership.
"There are not enough African-American educational leaders—especially men," says Larry. "My job was to fight for kids who couldn't fight for themselves. I knew that if those kids had an opportunity to thrive, they would."
Life after heart failure
In 2013, when he first learned of his health declining, Larry channeled his fighting spirit into survival.
"I was uncertain about my future and uncertain about my ability to come back from heart failure," he says. "I felt fear, but I wanted independence. I was going to have to earn that."
After 15 months of living without a heart in his chest, Larry got the call transplant patients hope for.
"They had a donor heart for me, if I chose to have it," Larry recalls. "I certainly chose to have it!" When he woke up after the transplant, he felt a difference right away.
"When you wake up, you just know that you're alive," says Larry. "You're attached to about a thousand wires, but you can feel that, in fact, there is a heart beating in there. You're truly alive."
"I need to make sure that I'm positive in the things that I do, to honor the person I got the heart from."
Now the 55-year-old retiree is taking care of his donor heart and enjoying his new lake house in Victorville. He plans to continue mentoring at-risk youth through his church and volunteering as a court appointed special advocate for kids.
"I'm having the time of my life," he says. "I need to make sure that I'm positive in the things that I do, to honor the person I got the heart from."