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Heart a versary Event Brings Together Patients for Connection and Conversation

Two people hugging at a Pauley Heart Center event. Megan Maltby, clinical social worker for the advanced heart failure and heart transplant programs at Pauley & Hume-Lee, hugs an attendee at the Heart-a-versary event.

Author: Liz Torrey

On a warm mid-October day, nearly 100 “alumni” of VCU Health’s heart transplant and left ventricular assist (LVAD) device programs gathered in the sun-filled lobby of McGlothlin Medical Education Center in downtown Richmond. These alumni—Hume-Lee Transplant Center and Pauley Heart Center patients who had received a LVAD implant or heart transplant at VCU Health at some point in the past—weren’t back at the hospital for a follow-up appointment. On this fall afternoon, they were present simply to connect with each other.

This was the goal of the first annual “Heart-a-versary” event: to bring together current and former patients, practitioners, and staff; celebrate patient journeys; and give all a chance to share stories.

“It makes sense that if you feel supported, you’re going to do better with something,” explains LVAD coordinator Rachel Acheson, RN. “Our LVAD patients often don’t know one other person with this device—there is a lot of isolation with this patient population. So it’s important for them to meet other LVAD patients.”

The Heart-a-versary was the brainchild of Acheson; Megan Hooper, RN, heart transplant coordinator for the Pauley Heart Center; and Megan Maltby, MSW, clinical social worker for the advanced heart failure and heart transplant programs at Pauley. Inspired by an employee engagement event they had organized in November 2022 to bring together heart failure and cardiothoracic surgery team members as the hospital was emerging from COVID, the threesome conceived of and coordinated the Heart-a-versary event for patients from soup to nuts. Maltby hosts an LVAD and heart transplant support group once a month at Pauley’s Stony Point location, and noted that attendees had long been requesting a party of some kind.

“Finally we just said, ‘We’re going to do this for them,’” Maltby recalls. “We knew we wanted to feed them lunch, celebrate them, and focus on patient education—and it just kind of morphed from there.” CareDx, Abbott, and Medtronic provided patient education tables and materials. Dr. Rachel Selby-Penczak of VCU Health’s Center for Advanced Health Management and Barton Bobb, palliative care NP, presented on advanced care planning. And of course, VCU Health’s Dogs on Call program brought a few puppies to festivities.

As they worked to make their vision a reality, Hume-Lee Transplant Clinical Director Maureen Flattery quietly applied for and received a grant to fund the majority of the event. “Behind our backs!” notes Maltby, who cites support from Flattery and others—including interim program manager for heart failure and transplant Kathryn Abernathy, heart failure section chief Dr. Keyur Shah, and associate vice president for transplant Sherry Newman—as a critical component of the event’s success.

“But Maureen did say she’s afraid that the three of us are going to leave and become event planners,” Maltby adds.

As the lunch concluded, heart failure and transplant doctors and surgeons, physician assistants and nurse practitioners, nurses and perfusionists and staff gathered around the edges of the room to listen to patient testimonies. “We had four patients designated to speak,” says Acheson. “But then the floodgates opened.”

“It was nice—our patients who are in similar boats got to hear their shared experiences and journeys and find someone to connect with,” recalls Hooper.

“For example, some of our patients who currently have an LVAD are listed for heart transplant,” Acheson says. “One of these patients got up to speak and said, ‘I just want to tell you that I was so discouraged, and then I came here, and you all have given me so much more hope about getting a heart transplant.’”

“I witnessed a lot of patients mingling that I know had never met each other previously,” Maltby says. “I think a lot of connections were made, which was the purpose of this event.”

Another motivation for the event was to give patients the chance to reconnect with their inpatient providers. “We have so many patients who always ask about their OR team, for example, or those providers they never see again [after they’re discharged from the hospital],” notes Hooper.

“So many people touch the lives of our patients,” explains Acheson. “Our patients are grateful not only for those who continue to care for them in the progressive care realm—they still remember the nurse that recovered them. They still remember the nurse that discharged them.” The trio plans to make the Heart-a-versary an annual event, and in future iterations, hopes to incorporate some way for alumni patients to visit the ICU or the floor where they recovered from transplant or VAD surgery. “It’s very difficult for nurses to be able to leave the bedside [to attend an event like this],” Acheson continues. “It’s so busy. So we want to figure out a way for our patients to be able to come and talk to the inpatient nurses they’re fond of, with good reason!”

Near the close of the event, a patient’s daughter approached Maltby and shared that, without the Hume-Lee Transplant Center, her children would not have a grandfather. “Then she started to cry, and of course, I got teary-eyed,” says Maltby. “The families felt like this was a day to celebrate their loved ones. It was so rewarding.”

“This all started with three employees having such love for our patients,” Acheson says. “This is what we wanted to do for them to show them our love. We just wanted to have fun with our patients and show them how much they are loved, appreciated, and supported.”

“And,” she adds, “I think it’s going to grow into something much, much bigger.”