ADDISON – Former Addison resident Martin Vece chuckles when he thinks of his nickname, “Darth Vece.”
He said the name is appropriate because he relies on a left ventricle assist device to help his heart pump blood. The current Las Vegas resident has been living with congestive heart failure for about one year, and he is awaiting a lifesaving heart transplant.
“I have this technology, this machine inside my chest that keeps me alive, just like Darth Vader did,” said Vece, 45. “He needs a machine to stay alive, and I do too.”
Vece, who graduated from Addison Trail High School in 1988 and lived in the area until 2001, was given the assist device in November 2014 to help his heart pump blood. He went to UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles for a transplant, where he also was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension.
His doctors told him he was so sick that he wouldn’t survive the operation. In addition to the pulmonary hypertension, his heart was only working at 20 percent of its capacity, Vece said.
“So basically they put plumbing into my heart, so the blood goes through tubes instead of arteries, and that’s the only reason I’m alive today,” he said. “I was totally overwhelmed."
The doctors told Vece he had to stay in the hospital for six months after being given the device and then move to LA because of all his doctor’s appointments.
Vece said his wife, Lizzy, had to pull his daughters out of school and find an apartment in a matter of days.
“She’s superwoman,” he said. “While I was in the hospital, she packed up our house, put our stuff in storage, rented a U-Haul and drove to LA with the kids.”
Lizzy Vece, 35, said their daughters adjusted well to the quick move and their new school. She said she was able to get the family moved into their new LA apartment within a week thanks to the help of friends and family.
“In a situation like that, you do what you need to do,” she explained. “There was no time to get upset. We found a church right away, and the girls’ school was great. I tried to find positives in the situation.”
Vece, who is a high school English teacher, was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 2006. He said it means his lower left ventricle is enlarged and doesn’t pump effectively. His doctors put him on medication and told him his condition may worsen in the future to where he’d need a transplant.
In March 2014, Vece had a lingering sinus infection that landed him in the hospital. It was then that doctors discovered his heart condition had deteriorated. By that summer, he was always out of breath, he said.
“Those months were the worst of my life,” Vece said. “I had no energy and was miserable. It was an effort to get up just to use the bathroom.”
Vece and his family moved back to Las Vegas this June, after living in LA since last November. He recently returned to work, after the family had been struggling financially during his medical crisis. He said they survived in LA thanks to the financial generosity of family and friends, as well as fundraising efforts.
“I’m pretty tired, so this is going to be hard,” he said of returning to the classroom. “I’m scared and I’m nervous. I don’t know how I’m going to do because I don’t have a lot of energy to get through the day.”
Vece said he’s “between No. 20 and No. 40” on UCLA’s transplant list and doesn’t know when he’ll get a heart. He said the heart has to be a perfect match with his age, blood type and a host of other things.
“It’s an ironic catch-22. My condition was so dire back in November when I went to UCLA I was No. 1 on the list,” he said. “But when I got the LVAD, I wasn’t in critical condition, so I dropped down the list. I had to get the LVAD to survive, but because of it, I’m still waiting for a heart. The longest anyone has lived with an LVAD is six years. If I don’t get a heart in time, I could die.”
Lizzy is optimistic. She said she’s excited for the “energetic” Martin to return once he gets his new heart.
“He’s always entertaining, always a comedian,” she said. “He’s going to get a second chance.”
How to help
For information on how you can help Martin Vece and his family, visit helphopelive.org and enter his name in the search bar.