Healthy You - Every Day

Scranton Tenor’s Voice – and Heart – Don’t Miss a Beat

Life-saving heart procedure keeps Joe Ciappetta belting out the tunes

As a teen in 1960s Brooklyn, N.Y., Joe Ciappetta and his buddies would sing a cappella just about anywhere, including parks and subways, belting out the songs of their favorite doo-wop stars and other crooners.

And while the music may have aged well, the same can’t be said for Ciappetta’s heart.

About 14 years ago, he collapsed at his then upstate New York home. After receiving a pacemaker, defibrillator and a new heart valve in the ensuing years, life continued for Ciappetta, a retired horticulturalist for New York City. But his heart condition worsened, and he was eventually referred to Yale Hospital in Connecticut.

Journey to an LVAD

Ciappetta, 72, initially rejected the suggestion of a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) from doctors at Yale. “I didn’t like the idea of living on batteries,” he recalls. “I felt like I was going to be a robot.”

An LVAD is a battery-operated mechanical pump that helps pump blood from your left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber, to your aorta.

Ciappetta and his wife, Denise, were facing some tough financial times due to his medical problems, and eventually decided to live with Denise’s uncle in Scranton to get back on their feet. “We basically had nothing left,” he says. A cardiologist at Yale knew Sima Hodavance, MD, a cardiologist with Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute, through Dr. Hodavance’s fellowship training there, and referred Ciappetta to Dr. Hodavance for continued treatment.

Dr. Hodavance also recommended an LVAD. Ciappetta said Dr. Hodavance told him his heart was in danger of failing at any time. Within weeks that prediction materialized, with Ciappetta hospitalized several times after experiencing severe breathing problems.

Ciappetta has severe dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart muscle enlarges, stretches and becomes thinner. As a result, his heart muscle doesn’t contract normally and can’t pump blood as it should.

A transplant is not in the cards because Ciappetta recently discovered he has prostate cancer.

Dr. Hodavance says with most cancers, a patient must be cancer-free for at least five years before a transplant will even be considered. With prostate cancer, that waiting period is two years. Given Ciappetta’s age and the condition of his heart, the LVAD was the best choice. “An LVAD is available off the shelf. A transplant is not,” says Dr. Hodavance.

Dr. Hodavance first met Ciappetta last November, first at Lehigh Valley Hospital (LVH)–Cedar Crest and then at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Pocono, where Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute’s heart failure group does outreach clinics each month. Clinics also take place at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Hazleton and Lehigh Valley Hospital–Schuylkill. “It’s very helpful for our patients outside the Lehigh Valley because they don’t have to travel as far,” Dr. Hodavance says.

Did You Know?

Lehigh Valley Health Network’s first LVAD surgery took place 10 years ago and more than 80 people have received LVADs since then.

“Sometimes people in Joe’s condition don’t necessarily realize how sick they’re getting,” Dr. Hodavance says. “Even up to the time we were discussing the LVAD, he thought he was doing OK. However, he was out of breath a lot more and for a singer, that’s huge.”

After testing and more discussions with Ciappetta and his wife, Denise, the decision was made to get the LVAD. “He said, ‘If I’m going to do this, it’s because I’m a singer and I want to live my life,’” Dr. Hodavance recalls.

Surgery and beyond

In late June, Ciappetta underwent the LVAD procedure at LVH–Cedar Crest, with cardiothoracic surgeon Timothy Misselbeck, MD, Chief, Cardiac Surgery, Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute.

Lehigh Valley Health Network’s (LVHN) first LVAD surgery took place 10 years ago and more than 80 people have received LVADs since then. “Patients with an LVAD enjoy a remarkably normal quality of life,” says Dr. Misselbeck. “Joe’s case is proof that LVAD recipients can continue doing what they love.”

Dr. Misselbeck says LVAD technology has improved over the years. The current version used at Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute, the HeartMate 3™, has been used since late 2017. “It’s very dependable and reduces a lot of the complications we saw with earlier LVADs,” Dr. Misselbeck says. “Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute continues to tackle even the toughest heart problems with the latest technologies.”

“I feel great. It was a good move,” says Ciappetta, who now goes to cardiac rehabilitation near his Scranton home. “It’s part of my life now. I’m getting used to it.”

LVADs are considered a long-term solution for patients like Ciappetta, says Dr. Hodavance.

Ciappetta, who goes by Joe C. on stage, is back to singing, though not like in the old days with his former group, Tuesday at Eight. The name came from the day and time they practiced each week. Their group was sometimes on the same card as classic acts such as The Drifters, The Mystics and Johnny Maestro & The Brooklyn Bridge.

“I feel great. It was a good move. It’s part of my life now. I’m getting used to it.” – Patient Joe Ciappetta

The Ciappettas say Joe received “unbelievable” care at LVH–Cedar Crest from everyone, including the LVAD team. “They [LVAD team] are amazing. We couldn’t have done anything without them. They were with us every step of the way,” Ciappetta says.

Ciappetta adds everyone at LVH–Cedar Crest genuinely treated him like family. “The nurses dressed in blue, and I used to call them my blue angels,” he says.

Denise Ciappetta says Joe was breathing on his own immediately after the LVAD procedure. She recalls being overjoyed at talking with him when she entered his hospital room after the operation. “All I did was cry, I was so happy,” she says.

Dr. Hodavance appreciates the praise for the LVAD team, a dedicated group with whom patients feel a real connection. LVAD coordinators keep things moving smoothly for both patients and doctors. “Our patients very much feel like members of our family,” Dr. Hodavance says. “We get to know everything about them.”

The team, Dr. Hodavance says, works together and everyone’s input is respected. “It’s very much an open dialogue about how we can best serve our patients,” Dr. Hodavance says. “It’s gratifying for everyone to have such a big impact on patients’ lives.”

When you see Joe Ciappetta out singing, he’ll be wearing his usual fishing vest. That’s where he keeps the LVAD batteries and wires that help keep his heart beating and his voice singing. And he’s glad to be able to give back to people, using his wonderful voice.

He still has the prostate cancer to address, but right now he’s got his life back.

“I’m blessed. I’m loved. I’m alive,” says Ciappetta. “That’s the main thing.”

left ventricular assist device (LVAD) HeartMate 3™

Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD)

A left ventricular assist device (LVAD) is an artificial pump that may be an option for you if your heart is failing.

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