Major League Baseball Hall of Famer and All-Star Rod Carew has worn a California Angels and a Minnesota Twins jersey during his record-setting, 19-year baseball career.
These days he’s sporting a different uniform—a vest that holds the batteries and wires connected to a mechanical pump that was implanted into his chest last fall to keep his failing heart working.
The pump, called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), was implanted at Scripps Prebys Cardiovascular Institute following a massive heart attack on Sept. 20, 2015, that caused Carew’s heart function to spiral downward.
“The pump and the team at Scripps brought me back from death’s door,” Carew said March 22, during a celebration of the Prebys Institute one-year anniversary.
The baseball legend announced that morning that six months after open-heart surgery to implant the pump, he is now being evaluated for a heart transplant—an admirable recovery for a 70-year-old man who had a heart attack commonly referred to as the widow-maker.
“To my Scripps team I’d like to thank you. God put me in your hands and continues to give me life through them,” Carew said. “I couldn’t ask for more than what you’ve done for me.”
To anyone else who will listen to him, Carew wants to say, “It’s important to get your heart checked out and listen to what you doctor says. Take care of your heart, it’s as simple as that.”
Carew, who lives in Orange County, said that prior to his heart attack he thought he was healthy. He’d had no signs of heart trouble.
A few months before his heart attack, his doctor told him that he had high cholesterol. Carew said he wasn’t good about taking the statins the doctor prescribed and didn’t schedule a follow-up visit as instructed.
“Like most people, I figured I was healthy and just put them aside and forgot about it. If I’d kept taking the pills and went for the follow-up, maybe he would have caught this,” Carew said.
On Sept. 20, Carew got up early and decided to play golf. Off the first tee, he hit a drive straight down the center of the fairway. As he was putting the cover back on his driver, he felt a burning in his chest and his palms went clammy.
Immediately he recalled a conversation a few weeks earlier with one of his friends who’d felt a strange sensation in his chest and turned out having a 93 percent blockage of a major artery. He had cautioned Carew that if he ever felt anything strange in his chest he should go get checked out.
“I didn’t know if I was having a heart attack, but I knew it wasn’t something I’d ever felt before,” Carew said.
He got in the golf cart and returned to the clubhouse. “Thank God I was on the first tee. If I was on the second or third hole, they would have found me dead.”
He recalls hearing one paramedic leaning over him with a defibrillator paddle in each hand, yelling to the other paramedics, “Hurry, we’re losing him!” He added, “My heart had stopped beating two times, though I don’t know how long, and they had to bring me back from the brink of death.”
Carew had 100 percent blockage in his left anterior descending coronary artery. Doctors installed three stents to open the blocked artery and a temporary balloon pump to help the heart function.
Once home, Carew struggled to breathe and gained 30 pounds from the fluid that accumulated in his lungs and feet because his heart wasn’t pumping enough blood to deliver oxygen throughout this body.
His doctor referred him to Scripps Advanced Heart Failure and Mechanical Circulatory Support team, which is renowned for its care of advanced heart failure. Carew was admitted to Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla with significant heart failure.
Doctors implanted a balloon pump to help keep his heart functioning. But he was too sick for that to be a permanent option. He was ultimately transferred to Prebys Institute where surgeons Dan Meyer, MD, and Sam Baradarian, MD, led the six-hour open-heart surgery to implant the LVAD.
The LVAD could keep Carew alive for the rest of his life, or it could get him healthy enough to be added to the list for a heart transplant.
“LVAD can mean the difference of life or death for a failing heart,” said J. Thomas Heywood, MD, one of Carew’s cardiologists and director of the Scripps Advanced Heart Failure and Mechanical Circulatory Support Program
“There have been drastic improvements in LVAD technology in the past decade, and there is definitive evidence demonstrating that patients with advanced heart failure live longer with an LVAD, compared to standard medical therapy,” said Ajay Srivastava, MD, a Scripps Clinic heart failure cardiologist who cared for Carew. “Now, patients can live permanently with an LVAD, if necessary.”
Scripps LVAD program has earned the highest accreditation from The Joint Commission with the Gold Seal of Approval and Advanced Certification.
Carew said that nurses visited him daily and helped to teach him and his wife, Rhonda, about the workings of the LVAD, how to clean the leads and how to live with it. He was also visited by LVAD Ambassadors, former patients who had received an LVAD implant and could provide first-hand accounts of life with the device.
He’s since attended meetings with a group of LVAD patients to talk about their experiences and concerns.
When Carew was discharged from Prebys, he was scared and weak, but determined to regain his health so that he could qualify for a heart transplant. He entered the acute inpatient rehabilitation program at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas with the determination and mettle of someone who held seven Major League batting titles.
“Once I started rehab, I just did what I had to and what I was told to do. Walking blocks. Walking stairs. Balancing. Breathing. Whatever I had to do to get better so that they would let me go home for Christmas,” he said. “The nicest thing about it was that the people working with me were constantly pushing me and wouldn’t let me get away with anything.”
Carew became the fastest patient ever released from LVAD rehab at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas.
“The entire Scripps team really cares about you and wants to see you do well and not because I’m Rod Carew the baseball player. I’ve talked to other patients and they’ve experienced he same thing.”
He continues to receive services from Scripps home health care.
Carew’s road to recovery has been an emotional one for a man with the mind and habits of a peak athletic performer. “It’s like being in a wheelchair and not being able to walk, and now I can walk again.”
Throughout his journey, he continued to contemplate his future. “I kept asking myself, ‘Where do I go from here? What is planned for me?’”
With the LVAD and his commitment to physical rehabilitation, Carew said he’s learning that, other than swimming because he can’t get the LVAD wet, he can go anywhere.
And he’s looking forward to taking a trip to Italy that he and Rhonda had planned before he had his heart attack. While he can manage that with the LVAD, Carew said he wants to wait for the transplant so that he can feel even more mobile.
Doctors must now evaluate his kidneys and liver to determine the damage they received from his heart attack before making the final decision of whether to place him on the transplant list. Should all go well, he could receive a new heart as early as June or July, Carew said with the same calm demeanor he was known for on the ball field.
One thing’s for certain — Carew said he’s now committed to raising awareness for heart health. He plans to use his experience and his platform of fame to tell people: “Go get your ticker checked out. Spend the money and get a doctor to look at your heart. Kids, tell your parents to get checked out so they’ll be around for you. It’s as simple as that.”