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Music Teacher Appreciates His [Heart] Beat, Thanks to Specialized Care

Joe Whalen at pianoMusic runs through the blood of West Springfield resident Joe Whalen. Unfortunately, the heart that pumps his blood has been a source of adversity for well over a dozen years, dating back to when he was a teenager.

“I transferred from Hartford Hospital as a pacemaker patient, and I was under the care of Dr. Cook,” Joe says. “I was in the pacemaker clinic for a whole bunch of years.” But the pacemaker only put Joe on a good path for so long. He developed congestive heart failure in his late 20s and was referred to Dr. Mara Slawsky in Baystate’s Heart Failure Program.

Award-Winning Care

Congestive heart failure can be caused by coronary artery disease, a heart attack, high blood pressure, valve issues, or other reasons. Like many others, Joe was in good hands at Baystate; U.S. News & World Report has rated Baystate Medical Center as part of an elite group of 34 “high performing” hospitals in a new form of evaluation that rates hospitals on how well they perform.

The Heart Failure Program at Baystate Medical Center helps to empower heart failure patients to manage their health and improve their daily life through a multitude of services.

“That was a big turning point because I was able to start feeling better because it wasn’t just the pacemaker I needed, I needed some other therapy,” Joe says. “Dr. Slawsky kicked my butt. She told me to get healthy and told me if I wanted to have better time while I still have time, ‘take care of yourself’ because it’s better to be happy than miserable.”

Healthy Lifestyle = Longer Life

Joe began bicycling and lost 90 pounds, with the healthy weight loss being credited for giving him an extra five years of life. Meantime, doctors worked to find the perfect mixture of heart medications to allow Joe to feel as strong as possible.

For eight years, Joe enjoyed life and what he hoped would be a permanently healthy heart. He thrived as a music teacher, employed in Hartford and Easthampton, over the years. 

His journey, though, was far from over.  

In 2013, after all interventions had been attempted, Dr. Slawsky grew concerned that further discomfort indicated Joe’s heart was simply wearing out. Eventually, he was forced to stop working.

“I didn’t even have the ability to conduct the band. When I couldn’t conduct the band anymore, it was kind of devastating because it was all I knew how to do,” he says.

Dr. Slawsky, after having spent years working to keep Joe alive, was not about to give up. She reached out to her cardiac counterparts across the region for assistance.

“The transition was awesome because Dr. Slawsky has such a great relationship with the other doctors,” Joe says.

Joe received a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, to help pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. It doesn’t replace the heart, but it can help circulate blood in artificial ways. In April of 2013, Joe received a full heart transplant.

“Because I had lost weight and bought time, and the medicines bought me time, I got to the point where the LVAD was available,” Joe says. “Those guys helped me get to that extended life.”

Baystate is only one of three hospitals in New England to be rated as “high performing” in an analysis of 4,600 hospitals nationwide in the magazine’s new Best Hospitals for Common Care ratings.

“This latest honor from U.S. News & World Report, in addition to already placing in its Best Hospitals report, is further recognition of the world-class care available to patients at Baystate Medical Center. It is truly an honor and a testament to our clinicians and staff who strive to deliver safe, high-quality care for our patients every day,” says Dr. Evan Benjamin, senior vice president for Quality and Population Health and chief quality officer for Baystate Health.”

Rhythm Restored

These days, Joe keeps in regular contact with his team of cardiologists and feels healthier than ever. In 2015 alone, he bicycled 2,200 miles. He’s also back in the classroom, teaching music at a middle school in Suffield, Connecticut.

“I feel good, other than being tired from having to work,” Joe says with a laugh. “I was given a gift so I am going to take care of it.”

It’s a gift that is allowing the music in his blood to flow once again, thanks in large part to Dr. Slawsky and her team. “I wouldn’t be here without them. What they are doing is really important, and they really know what they are doing. They made me feel at ease,” Joe says. “They help me understand how to be a patient.”