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Organ transplant at heart center gives patient new appreciation for health

Michael Modica stands posing triumphantly after finishing a 5k race promoting heart health. The recipient of a heart transplant after an unexpected health issue, Modica has a new appreciation for his health and organ donors.
Michael Modica at the annual Have a Heart 5K Race/Walk.

The first Staten Island resident to receive a heart transplant at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital discusses his energized outlook on life and organ donation.

For Michael Modica, going from a seemingly healthy 30-year-old construction worker to needing a heart transplant wasn’t where he saw his life heading.

In the fall of 2017, Mr. Modica was fighting a seasonal cold that kept getting worse. He went to an urgent care office for treatment and was sent home with a diagnosis of bronchitis and a prescription for antibiotics. After two weeks of no improvement, his mother, Mary Dahl, stepped in. The moment she saw her son, she rushed him to the Emergency Room at Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH) where he was in liver, kidney and heart failure. Fighting a form of viral cardiomyopathy, Mr. Modica’s heart had doubled in size. His 30-day illness had triggered an undiagnosed heart condition masked by his healthy lifestyle.

After consulting with the cardiology team at SIUH, Mr. Modica was transferred to Maimonides Medical Center, an affiliate of Northwell Health in Brooklyn specializing in implanting the left ventricular assist device (LVAD). The device stabilized his condition and saved his life.

Though the LVAD kept him alive and active, it required a lot of upkeep: daily maintenance and cleaning coupled with 18 medications a day, all while keeping the device dry during showers. Mr. Modica met Brian Lima, MD, a heart transplant surgeon at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital, who told him he was a candidate for a heart transplant. Mr. Modica was put on the waiting list.

Some patients can be on a transplant list for years. Luckily for Mr. Modica, it only took a few months. He slept with his phone on every night waiting for that lifesaving call. On July, 10, 2018, at 3:30 a.m. the call came, but Mr. Modica didn’t answer.

Mom’s back-to-back saves

“I slept by my phone every night,” Mr. Modica recalled. “The night the call came that there was a heart for me, I didn’t hear the phone. My mom, who generally turns her phone off at night, had kept it on and answered the call. Within minutes we were on our way to Long Island.”

They arrived at the Heart Hospital in Manhasset where Dr. Lima implanted the donor heart. Four weeks after the transplant, Mr. Modica is home and happy to be alive. 

“[Getting a new heart] was a shock to me,” Mr. Modica said. “It was everything I wanted, but still very scary.”

Mr. Modica was the first Staten Islander to receive this lifesaving transplant at the new center, which saw its first transplant patient in February and to date has performed 14 heart transplants.

In his convalescence, Mr. Modica passed the time playing guitar for the nurses and caregivers at the heart hospital.

“Guitar playing and my mom have been keeping me centered throughout my time in the hospital,” he explained.

Before the surgery, Mr. Modica was a registered organ donor, but now he knows the true value of the gift.

“When people ask me if there’s anything they can do, I say: ‘Become an organ donor.’ Especially after experiencing how important donors can be to somebody like me, it’s an absolute necessity,” Mr. Modica said.

quotation mark It’s everything to not have trouble getting out of bed and walking across the room. Just getting to the point where I can run and do all of the stuff that I used to do is uplifting.
Michael Modica

The finish line

The final steps of Mr. Modica’s journey are being taken back at Staten Island University Hospital, where he’s working through the hospital’s new cardiac and pulmonary rehab program at its South Site. The 36-week program monitors patients via cardiac telemetry as they lay the groundwork on treadmills and elliptical machines, with data instantly transmitted to a cardiologist for review. “I look forward to running, getting in shape and going to the gym, just being physically fit, which couldn’t be done with the LVAD,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being 100 percent again.”

Just recently, Mr. Modica walked a 5k with the Have a Heart Foundation of Staten Island. Along with 60 others, Modica helped raise awareness for heart disease while celebrating his journey back into an active lifestyle.

“It’s everything to not have trouble getting out of bed and walking across the room. Just getting to the point where I can run and do all of the stuff that I used to do is uplifting,” Mr. Modica explained.

To Mr. Modica, crossing the finish line didn’t just signify the end of the race. “It’s just another step to freedom.”