One year ago, heart patient Ron Walters, 66, thought he'd seen the last of his beloved fishing pole. His poor circulation had stripped him of any sensation in his extremities, and he feared that if he tried to bait a hook, he'd only injure himself.
But not being able to go fishing was the least of Walters' troubles. His failing heart was killing him, robbing him of blood supply to all but a few crucial organs – the brain, the kidneys and the lungs.
"I didn't think I'd be here a year ago," Walters said Monday at Sutter Memorial Hospital.
All that's changed, now that Sutter doctors have implanted a new mechanical heart pump in Walters' chest. He's the first patient in the Sacramento region to receive the Food and Drug Administration-approved device as he awaits a heart transplant.
The device is smaller and easier to implant than previous heart pumps. Because it is metal, there is no risk of rejection, doctors said.
Dr. Robert Kincade is the surgical director of the Sutter Heart Transplant Program and the surgeon who opened Walters' chest to fit him with the new pump, known as a left ventricular assist device.
Sutter Memorial Hospital is the first in the region to offer the procedure, and Walters and his wife, Nancy, traveled all the way from Santa Maria in Southern California to seek the expertise.
"He's been a really good patient," Kincade said. "He feels good now, but when he came in he was in bad straits. He was in a wheelchair, he couldn't walk. He had no quality of life. He was dying."
On Monday, Walters was beaming as he left the hospital for the first time in weeks. As he rose from his wheelchair to meet the press, Walters, at 6-foot-4, stood tall.
"I'm standing here real sturdy," he said, "and before the surgery, I couldn't. I was wobbly."
Walters attributes his heart failure to the stress and anxiety he felt after being pistol-whipped during a 1992 robbery of a Fresno supermarket he managed.
That night, two men burst into the store brandishing guns and demanding cash. One man with an Uzi pistol lined up store employees, all young women, and another held a gun on Walters as he gathered the money.
"I got a good look at the pistol but not at the guy," Walters said, referring to the beating he took before the robbers retreated.
Years passed, but the aftermath of the violence did not.
"It still upset me because I had no power over what happened," Walters said. "It made me so mad. That frustration probably triggered my heart attack because I was unable to do anything to stop them."
The heart attack came one night in 2002 when Walters was closing up the supermarket. At first, he felt severe nausea. Then, he said, "It hit me real fast. It felt like I was on fire, and the pain in my jaw and chest went nuts."
One stent, five bypasses and several angiograms later, Walters finds himself at the forefront of a trailblazing procedure featuring the newest, smallest heart pump on the market.
The pump was inserted in his diaphragm, tucked in below his heart during a two-hour surgery. A centrifuge mechanism pumps 5 liters per minute of blood through his heart – at the rate of an average healthy adult.
"We hope it'll hold him several years," said Kincade – or until Walters can receive a heart transplant.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, striking down men and women alike.
And although the pumps are expensive, running around $60,000 to $70,000, demand is expected to grow, and competition among manufacturers may help bring down health care costs.
One benefit of the new pump, made by HeartWare, is that insertion is easier – and a smoother operation means patients get to go home faster.
Besides being able to resume fishing, Walters said he is looking forward to reuniting with their dogs.
"I feel really fortunate that I get to go home and play with my dogs," Walters said. "I miss my puppies."