Heart pump saves life of former APP columnist Michael Riley

Editor’s Note: Michael Riley, a South Amboy resident and longtime journalist popular with Asbury Park Press readers for his humorous and touching columns, retired in 2015. Last year he suffered a rescue operation at the Jersey Shore Medical University of Hackensack Meridian Health. Center in Neptune. Here he tells us all about the incredible technology that brought him back from certain death.

My heart and I have had a relationship every now and then for decades. Literally.

I had a heart attack in 2001, what my cardiologist called “sudden cardiac death,” which required a train of stents in my arteries and a pacemaker in my chest. Cardiologists are not fond of euphemisms.

Twenty years later, at the age of 63, sudden heart disease has evolved into a new disease: “advanced chronic heart failure” – no participation trophy is awarded when the old ticker stops pumping enough blood in the body at a rate to keep a soul alive. “Heart failure”: a capital “F” in red ink is written on the anatomical report.

Retired APP columnist Michael Riley was recently saved after an operation that installed a heart pump in his chest to keep blood flowing through his body.  He is a marvel of modern science, and without it he would probably have died within months of heart failure.  South Amboy, NJ Thursday December 16th, 2021

Farewell and good luck:Read Riley’s latest column of 2015

As Dr Jesus Amendral, medical director of the Advanced Heart Failure Program at the University of Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, said, my situation was “catastrophic.” I was in pain, weak and tired all the time.

Dr Jesus Amendral

Every day, Dr Amendral and his partner walked into my hospital room and told me that I really had two choices. I could receive hospice care for the six months or less before my heart finally stopped completely, or I could what they called a “heart pump.”

Frankly, I was so sick and tired of being sick and tired that I told Susan, my wife of 40 years, that I was going to go for hospice care.

Retired APP columnist Michael Riley was recently saved after an operation that installed a heart pump in his chest to keep blood flowing through his body.  He is a marvel of modern science, and without it he would probably have died within months of heart failure.  One of Riley's prized possessions is a photo of himself, his son Josh, and Bruce Springsteen, taken backstage at the Meadowlands in 2012, and a letter the boss sent him regarding his column.  South Amboy, NJ Thursday December 16th, 2021

“I had a good race,” I tell Susan. We loved each other fiercely and gave birth to four beautiful sons. Bruce Springsteen told me that I am smart and funny. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Weisel asked me to comment on Southern writer Flannery O’Conner in a Boston class he was teaching on the literature of cruelty. I made people laugh. And think. It’s time for Elvis to leave the building and get rid of this deadly shell.

Riley on hearts: Huge hearts, tiny hearts and ours

Sue ignored me and enlisted our sons to put me on the heart pump train. And so it was that in May 2021, Dr. Deepak Singh, Surgical Director of the Advanced Heart Failure Program, placed a chic DAVG HeartMate III pump in my chest.

Dr Deepak Singh at the University of Jersey Shore Medical Center

“Implanting is a high risk open heart procedure,” Dr Singh told me. “We don’t stop the heart for this procedure (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thank goodness!), But we dig a hole in the apex of the heart to insert the device (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Wait, what? Core a hole? Damn!), Then connect the pump to the aorta.

“The pump takes the oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle and pumps it to the aorta which carries the blood,” he said. “There is also a driveline placed under the rib cage which is connected to an external battery.”

It’s true. I’m a fucking Tony Stark these days. If you hold a stethoscope to my chest, you don’t hear a heartbeat. Rather, you hear a gentle hum. Weird, isn’t it?

Michael and Susan Riley

Every night when I lie down to sleep I get what we euphemistically call “plugged into the wall”. Maybe it would be fairer to say that I’m actually a cross between Tony Stark and Buzz Lightyear.

Riley at Christmas: Christmas trip is not a day at the beach

Retired APP columnist Michael Riley was recently saved after an operation that installed a heart pump in his chest to keep blood flowing through his body.  He is a marvel of modern science, and without it he would probably have died within months of heart failure.  South Amboy, NJ Thursday December 16th, 2021

I spent months in the hospital and in rehab before finally coming home. COVID-19 meant no visitors except Sue, who they let visit once a day for 15 minutes to change the bandage around the practice line.

I came home in June and a physiotherapist still comes to the house twice a day. I limp with a walker, but week after week people tell me how much better I am. My wife and kids tell me I’m back to being the curmudgeon they know and love.

The DAVG Heartmate III pump.

Maybe Paul Simon was right when he sang in the song “The Boy In The Bubble” – “These are the days of miracle and wonder.”

Maybe not in the sense of parting the Red Sea or in the sense of water in wine, but I certainly know what a day of miracle and wonder looks like these days.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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