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Patient Story

Meet: Vanessa Cirillo

  • Age: 27 (at implant)
  • Diagnosis: Dilated idiopathic cardiomyopathy
  • SynCardia Total Artificial Heart implant date: Aug. 10, 2007
  • Transplant date: Nov. 24, 2007
  • Time on SynCardia's Total Artificial Heart: 106 days
  • Residence: Tucson, Arizona
  • Hospital: University Medical Center
  • Surgeon: Dr. Jack Copeland

Flown from Las Vegas to Tucson

I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 2000 after I suffered a heart attack. I recovered and lived a healthy life until June 2007, when I got really sick in Las Vegas and was hospitalized. My heart had enlarged several times its normal size, known as cardiomyopathy. I needed a heart transplant but no donor heart was available. My heart wasn’t strong enough to wait.

I was flown from Las Vegas to University Medical Center (UMC) in Tucson, Arizona. The next day, I was implanted with the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart.

drjackcopland-surgery“Vanessa was only about 5’4", 117 pounds, so we didn’t think the Total Artificial Heart was going to fit. However, because of her enlarged heart, there was enough space to implant the Total Artificial Heart. This saved her life because she suffered an unrelated intestinal infection. If she had been on a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) or any other device, the infection would have killed her.”          – Dr. Jack Copeland, Vanessa’s surgeon 

Better Than My Original Heart

Before I got the Total Artificial Heart I was weak. I could barely walk up stairs. I got really winded walking long distances. I always felt tired and sick. I just wanted to stay home. I didn’t want to do anything.

After I received the Total Artificial Heart, I felt really good. It made my body feel much better than my original heart did. The Total Artificial Heart helped me become physically, nutritionally and mentally well.

Boxing My Way to Health

I built my body up by going to the gym at least twice a day and eating as much as I could without feeling sick. I was walking on the treadmill, using weights, working on my balance skills and just building up my health. I knew that the healthier I was before the transplant, the healthier I would be after.

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I also began boxing while I was on the Total Artificial Heart. It was so much fun. I’d never done it before. It was a very good workout and it was just invigorating. It was amazing to me when I first did it. I couldn’t believe that I actually was boxing.

“I saw my daughter come back from a state that I didn’t think she would. Just to see her boxing, it made my heart happy. She was a different person, strong and fit. It’s just amazing, because if you didn’t know she had a Total Artificial Heart, you would think she was just a normal person with a human heart.”            – Barbara Cirillo, Vanessa’s mom

Attitude is Everything

I lived at the hospital for four months. Before I went to UMC, I was scared I was going to die. I had no idea what my options were for survival. Then, on Aug. 10, 2007, I awoke to my “life support”.

We prayed every day and that’s what got us through the rough times and brought us into the happy times. Your attitude is everything. I was lucky enough to have a strong support system with my family. You need to go through struggles and learn lessons to become a better person. Once you have that strength, you can give more to others.

New Meaning to Giving Thanks

I received my heart transplant two days after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 24, 2007, which brought a whole new meaning to giving thanks. I am thankful for my mother, father, sister and brother-in-law for being by my side every step of the way. I am thankful for my family and friends who live all over the world and for their constant love and prayers. 

I am thankful for my donor and his family. Without his courage of becoming an organ and tissue donor, many people, including myself, wouldn't be alive. 

I am also thankful for the Total Artificial Heart. Without this device, I wouldn't have been alive to receive the gift of a donor heart.

You can’t take anything for granted. I remember the first time that I actually got to go outside. It had been like three months since I had felt the sun on my skin, the breeze on my face. The instant that I actually got out the door was just amazing. I felt great! I felt like that’s what the world is, that’s what your life is supposed to feel like.

Helping Others

After being discharged from the hospital, I began volunteering with the Donor Network of Arizona. I work with transplant recipients and families of organ donors to provide information, answer questions and dispel myths about organ donation.

Since I was little, I always knew I wanted to help people. My experience being bridged-to-transplant with the Total Artificial Heart has lit the path in front of me.

Celebrating Life

In 2009, I decided to celebrate my second anniversary with my donor heart by riding in the 2009 El Tour de Tucson cycling race. I rode as a member of Team SynCardia, alongside the surgeon that saved my life, Dr. Jack Copeland.

Today, I look forward to living every day and enjoying the beauty the world offers. The Total Artificial Heart saved my life. Without it, I wouldn’t be here.

KUAT Arizona Illustrated

Following her transplant, watch Vanessa’s story featured on KUAT Arizona Illustrated:

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Vanessa with her sister Erica on a trip to Italy in January 2007, five months before her health took a turn for the worse.


Vanessa works out with Rob Bailey, manager of the Health and Wellness Center at UMC, to get stronger for her donor heart transplant.


Vanessa celebrates Halloween on the Total Artificial Heart with her sister Erica.


Total Artificial Heart recipient Vanessa Cirillo received her donor heart on Nov. 24, 2007.


During December 2008, Vanessa visited her parents in Florida. She is pictured here with her mother Barbara.


Vanessa celebrated her 2nd transplant anniversary by riding in the 2009 El Tour de Tucson cycling race with Team SynCardia.




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