Joe celebrates a world record and a life well-lived

Man and woman hold award standing next to Fiona Stanley Hospital clinician
(L-R) Pam and Joe Rocca with Consultant Cardiologist Dr Jay Baumwol
August 11, 2017

A world record was set at Fiona Stanley Hospital (FSH) last week as patient Joe Rocca celebrated his 10th anniversary of receiving a mechanical heart pump.

Joe, 78, is the longest living recipient of a HeartWare ventricular assist device (HVAD) – and the FSH Advanced Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Service held a special celebration to mark the occasion.

Ten years ago, after surviving two earlier heart attacks, Joe’s heart began to fail.  Close to death and unable to walk without extreme breathlessness, he received a HVAD at Royal Perth Hospital (RPH) as a bridge to a heart transplant.

It later became clear that despite his intensive medical and exercise rehabilitation, Joe was not well enough to survive a transplant operation – so the HVAD became his only lifeline.

Medical Head of the FSH Advanced Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Service Dr Lawrence Dembo said VADs were still a developing technology at the time.

“The VAD program has matured a lot since those early days,” Dr Dembo said.

“Back then, surviving for two years was considered very impressive.”

He said cases like Joe’s required the collaborative work of a multidisciplinary team.

“Joe has been supported by a nurse practitioner, clinical nurses, cardiologists, aexercise physiologists and others,” Dr Dembo said.

“The physical rehab is demanding but Joe has been at the gym three times per week with further rehab at home – more than most people without a heart condition manage. His longevity has also been the result of his own motivation and hard work, which he’s done with a smile.”

Dr Dembo also acknowledged the efforts of Professor Gerry O’Driscoll, the driving force in the setup of the VAD program at RPH, and VAD Nurse Practitioners Helen Hayes and Julie Barber. Joe’s wife Pam said the pump had allowed Joe, a former earthmoving contractor, to work until age 75 – as well as see his grandchildren grow up and to spend time with his great-grandchildren.

In 2009, with the help of some careful planning by medical and airline staff, the couple flew to Italy to see where Joe’s parents were born – something they “never, ever” thought possible.

Pam expressed thanks to both FSH and RPH for their care over the years.

“There are far too many people involved for us to thank them all, but we really can’t imagine this journey without the dedication of everyone who has been there for us every step of the way,” she said.

“They are so dedicated and they drop everything to see Joe – you’re not just a number to them, you are a part of their family and they are a part of ours.”

FSH A/Executive Director Janet Zagari said Joe was a “shining example” of the hospital’s culture of clinical excellence.

“Fiona Stanley Hospital is proud to be home to the State’s Advanced Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Service, which is achieving outstanding patient results,” Janet said.

“Congratulations to all involved in Joe’s record-breaking recovery.”