WATCH: Vietnam veteran undergoes lifesaving heart transplant at UCMC

'He was the perfect subject'

CINCINNATI -- If you ask Gerald Malone, there are several similarities between overseas combat and organ transplant surgery.

The biggest similarity?

"The anticipation," Malone said. "Sometimes there's hours of boredom, then minutes of absolute stark, ravin' lunacy."

He said some people learn how to deal with it -- but not everyone.

"I'm one of those guys who probably never should have gone to combat, because I remember it all," he said. "I don't ever want to forget..."

He began to cry.

"But I knew we were doing the right thing," he said. "When I saw what the Viet Cong were doing -- boy. I said 'We gotta fix these guys.'

"It was the best thing I ever did in my whole life," he said. "I made my bones there. I hope I did some good. I hope I helped some people out who needed help."

This time, it was Malone who needed help.

The 71-year-old previously had a pacemaker and defibrillator to combat complications to a developing enlarged heart. In the last year, he said, the device went off 13 times.

"The last time it went off, I ended up on the floor of the dining room," he said. "It's like getting hit by a train when it goes off."

After that last trip to the emergency room, Malone's doctors told him to consider a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) pump or a heart transplant.

"I said 'Doc, I been cut into twice. I can only handle one more. So it's either (the transplant) or just turn it off, let me go,'" he said. "It sounds macho but it's not. It's a quality of life thing."

That's when Malone met Dr. David Feldman, the director of advanced myocardial and circulatory services division of cardiovascular health and disease at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

"Mr. Malone was the perfect subject," Feldman said. "You're only replacing the heart, so you want a great mind, great social resources and otherwise great lungs. You can see from his previous history as a marine that he's still in great shape. All he needed was a new heart."

Technically, Malone was older than the typical cutoff date for a transplant surgery, which is 70. 

"But the doctor told me they couldn't have found a better candidate," he said. "And I had to be a good boy -- I don't drink, I don't smoke. That's helped me out a lot. People don't believe I'm 71."

Feldman said heart transplants are not common -- around 1,800 heart transplant surgeries are performed in the US. each year. UCMC is on track to do 12 to 15 heart transplants this year, Feldman said.

Patients are given priority based on how sick they are and blood type, Feldman said.

"To be at the top of the list, you have to be hospitalized the whole time leading up to your surgery," he said.

Malone was, but he said he didn't mind.

"I'm on vacation," Malone said. "I've got beautiful girls working on me hand and foot. And I have cable TV."

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