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Nov. 15, 1957, 7:30 pm. A date and time that is permanently embedded in John Merrill’s mind. It was that fateful night when John, a 26-year-old Air Force fighter pilot, flamed out at 150 feet altitude during takeoff and plummeted toward the ground at Dover Air Force Base, Del.
Upon impact, John slammed into the joystick, injuring his sternum and severely bruising his heart. Remarkably, he was pulled from the fiery plane without any burns, but the crash traumatized many joints in his body, bruised his spinal cord, damaged his bladder, ripped his stomach and caused heart arrhythmias that ended his career in the skies.
“The crash caused me severe back and heart problems my whole life,” says John. “After the military, I spent my career as a pharmacist. Once I reached retirement, I knew my health problems could no longer be ignored.”
Years later, a semiretired John turned to his clarinet for relaxation, an instrument he hadn’t had time to play since college. He soon became involved with the El Cajon German Band, the Kearny Mesa Concert Band and the San Diego Concert Band. John enjoyed playing the clarinet, but his mounting heart problems and difficulty breathing soon prevailed.
That’s when John turned to the Mechanical Circulatory Support Program at Sharp Memorial Hospital. At age 78, John wasn’t a candidate for a heart transplant, but his cardiologists, Drs. David Ostrander and Peter Hoagland, suggested that a HeartMate II Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) might help John's heart pump more efficiently while still providing him with the independence to continue his hobbies.
On another monumental day in his life, Aug. 5, 2009, Drs. Walter Dembitsky and Robert Adamson implanted John’s LVAD at Sharp Memorial.
“Drs. Ostrander, Hoagland, Dembitsky and Adamson were right up there with all the best,” says John. “I was very impressed by the way they explained things to me. They are top-notch physicians and gentlemen. The nurses and staff in all phases of the recovery process were my saviors. What a team!”
Less than one month after open-heart surgery, John was able to return home. He credits his speedy recovery to his lifelong athleticism and admits that the clarinet was also instrumental to his rehabilitation since it aided his lung recovery.
In December 2009, just four months after heart pump surgery, John performed in the San Diego Concert Band’s Christmas concert. As his wife, Marlene, and friends and nurses from Sharp Memorial looked on, John didn’t miss a beat, and thanks to his heart pump and the care he received at Sharp, neither did his heart.
For More Information
For more information about heart and vascular care at Sharp or to find a Sharp-affiliated doctor, search for a San Diego cardiologist or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm. To find general information about heart and vascular care, visit Cardiovascular Diseases in Adult Health or read the Heart and Cardiovascular News archive.