Penn Heart and Vascular

Carlton's Experience with the Heart Failure Program

Watch Carlton's Story

They say good things come in three.

Just ask Carlton Sherwood. He was given three more chances at life thanks to the doctors and nurses at Penn Medicine.

Carlton had a family history of heart disease. By 63, he had already had several heart attacks and a few procedures to have stents placed to open blocked arteries. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Vietnam vet, an avid fisher and traveler, Carlton has lived an active life. Most importantly, he enjoys dancing with his wife. But as his heart disease progressed, he was forced to slow down, unable to do the things he once enjoyed.

A devastating disease. A life saved.

His local cardiologist suggested he talk with, Dr. Joyce Wald, a doctor at Penn Medicine who specialized in heart failure. A few days after his evaluation with Dr. Wald, Carlton's condition dramatically worsened. Suffering in the advanced stages of heart failure, his local cardiologist sent Carlton to the ER, where he was immediately transferred via Medivac to Penn—a transport arranged by Dr. Wald. "That is how my odyssey began," Carlton says. "It was the first time Penn saved my life. Otherwise, I would have died at 63."

Carlton needed an Ventricular Assist Device (VAD), a device implanted into his heart to help pump blood. But first, his blocked arteries had to be cleared. Dr. Ron Fairman, the Chief of Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy at Penn, canceled vacation plans to make this happen quickly.

Carlton and his wife dancing

Carlton's heart failure prevented him from doing what he loved most – dancing with his wife.

A risky procedure. An experienced team.

Carlton says the period before his VAD surgery was particularly challenging for his family, seeing him hooked up to machines. "But the one thing that gave everybody courage was the constant attention the doctors gave them," he says. "They gave them constant updates as to my condition and had my rehab plans already in place."

His VAD surgery took place in March—the second time Penn saved his life—and kept Carlton in the hospital for almost six weeks. His rehab involved learning how to use his VAD equipment, change the battery pack, and travel with it. "It eliminated the fear of being stuck at home," he says. But Carlton wasn't out of the woods yet. His carotid arteries were blocked, putting him at risk for a stroke. The medical community had yet to place carotid stents in a VAD recipient, and the procedure was risky—but the team at Penn persisted to find a way to save Carlton's life a third time. "They prepped me for it. They all got together," he says of the various doctors and staff involved in the procedure. "There are common myths about doctors, especially good doctors, that they have big egos and they can't talk to each other. That myth was completely blown when I came to Penn." Carlton's carotid arteries were opened one at a time, and during each surgery, an operating room next door was open in case he threw a clot.

Feeling better, and stronger, every day

Three years post-op, Carlton says he feels better and stronger than ever. "My carotid arteries are actually pumping more blood than they were when the stents were put in," he explains. "My heart is stronger. My blood flow is stronger. I forget how sick I was." Today he says he feels 58, not 66, and he's back to dancing with his wife.

How far would you drive to stay alive?

The staff at Penn has become like family to Carlton, and he continues to make the two-plus hour trip from Harrisburg to Philadelphia regularly for his care—to the surprise of some. "People say to me, even at the hospital, this must be a really rough drive for you," he says. "But I say, ‘How far would you drive to stay alive? My life is worth Penn Medicine. Isn't yours?’"