The singing heart patient: How Vincenzo Avanzato stayed positive even when he had no heart

Lawrence McGinty

Former Science and Medical Editor

Vincenzo Avanzato

You have to be pretty ill to get on the waiting list for a heart transplant at Papworth Hospital. They do not put you on the list unless you are not expected to live for two years. So you can imagine how ill you have to be to get on the “urgent” waiting list – it means you have to stay in hospital and your life is under imminent threat.

That makes Vincenzo Avanzato’s story all the more remarkable. He spent thirteen weeks on the urgent list at Papworth – more than any other patient. Every day in hospital could have been his last. Eventually, over Christmas, Vincenzo got a donor organ.

When I met him five weeks later, he could hardly stop laughing and smiling. I thought that was because he has finally found a donor heart, but everyone told me Vincenzo, a handsome Sicilian who ran a successful restaurant in the West End of London, is just that kind of guy.

While he was on the urgent list, he would get up every morning and ask tell the nurses, “I’m still here”. He would sing Italian arias. He even sang as they were wheeling him to the operating theatre for the transplant. He calls himself “positive”. I would say “indomitable”.

His spirit undoubtedly helped to keep him alive, but he also owes a debt to a marvellous piece of engineering called an L-VAD. As Vincenzo’s end-stage heart failure got worse, the future looked bleak. But doctors implanted this miniature pump into his chest to take over the main beating function of his heart. It is connected to batteries outside the body that Vincenzo wore in a waist pouch. Inside, an ingenious rotary pump turns thousands of times a minute to pump blood around his body. It kept him alive until a donor organ was available.

Vincenzo has been transformed from a patient so sick he could not even wash his face – but was so proud he stopped his wife doing it for him because he could not bear the tear that came to her eye – to a man who strides confidently to the appointment for his check-up with a laugh on his lips and a gleam in his eye.