Doctors at UW Health give veteran second chance at life

25-year-old recovers from heart failure after bariatric surgery
Doctors at UW Health give veteran second chance at life
Keith McCarter

At 25 years of age Keith McCarter returned to Wisconsin after a yearlong tour of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Army. He and his wife, Jessica McCarter, were deployed together to Southern Iraq. What they didn’t know was life would be more challenging with their return home.

“His challenges in Iraq probably paled to the comparison of the challenge he had when he got back,” said Dr. Michael Garren, a bariatric surgeon at UW Health.

Shortly after returning home, Keith went into heart failure. Doctors determined he needed a heart transplant, but until a donor could be found they gave him a ventricular assist device to keep his heart beating.

“He really didn’t have a lot of options. He could live with the ventricular assist device as long as it would last, but if he couldn’t get a new heart, at his young age that essentially would have been the end of his life,” Garren said.

Keith was placed on the heart transplant list, but didn’t stay there for long.

“Keith was on so many medications that one of his medications had affected his thyroid and he started packing on the pounds,” Jessica McCarter said.

When Keith gained more than 100 pounds he became ineligible to remain on the heart transplant list. He weighed 330 pounds when he first visited Garren’s office and his health was rapidly failing.

“He was 25, 25 years old and he was dying,” Jessica McCarter said. “Keith was on his death bed.”

Keith’s best hope for survival rested in bariatric surgery that would allow him to lose enough weight to go back on the heart transplant list. While Garren has performed bariatric surgery well over 1,000 times, most of those procedures were elective surgeries.

There would be nothing elective about Keith’s surgery.

“I see people coming to me that are desperate at some level. Keith was desperate to live,” Garren said.

The surgery was complicated by the condition of Keith’s heart and the presence of the ventricular assist device. Ninety minutes in an operating room would determine Keith’s future.

Ninety days later Keith’s future looked dramatically different. He lost the 100 pounds.

“As of this morning I weighed 207,” Keith said. “I’ve gotten everything pretty much back. I’m able to travel again, able to go swimming and do stuff with my kids that I couldn’t before.”

And then his doctors discovered the biggest surprise of all.

“He exceeded our expectation that not only he lost the weight, he became a transplant candidate, but also we were able to able to take him off the list,” said Dr. Lucian Lozonschi, a cardiologist at UW Health.

Doctors are not certain why Keith’s heart recovered and there is still a possibility his heart could go back into failure. For the time being, the ventricular assist device has been removed and Keith is cherishing each day with his wife and three children.

“It is awesome to be here to see my kids sixth, fourth and 17th birthdays,” Keith said.

Keith’s recovery also serves as a reminder to Garren about why he does what he does.

“I’d like to admit that I didn’t have tears welling up in my eyes. For all of my patients it is a special thing to see their lives transformed for the better. Keith, given his history, given his age I can’t tell you that I’ve had a more gratifying patient interaction in my entire career,” Garren said.

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