Alice Marez says she was saved by UC Davis doctors, an LVAD pump and line dancing. If she had to choose only one, 79-year-old Marez might just pick the line dancing.
LVAD is short for left ventricular assist device, a surgically implanted, battery-operated pump that took over some of the work of her heart. Marez had one implanted in a June 2018 surgery. Line dancing is, well, line dancing. Marez has been teaching it for decades. She says both are keeping her heart beating.
“After my surgery, I didn’t want to do anything,” Marez said. “But I knew I wanted to get back to line dancing. When I started to feel just a little better, I got myself moving. Four months after my surgery, I was back teaching.”
Marez doesn’t sound like someone who would need help getting moving or keeping her heart working. She is energetic and constantly looking for places to dance and teach, although the COVID-19 isolations have curtailed much of that for now.
She lives in Castro Valley in the East Bay Area and worked for the Peralta Community College District for 35 years starting as a clerk-typist, working her way up to executive business manager at Merritt College before she retired in 2000. Marez returned as a consultant in 2010 for two years.
In her early years there, she developed breast cancer. Doctors successfully treated it, but they warned her the chemotherapy could potentially damage her heart in later years.
Marez fell for line dancing when she worked the Jerry Lewis Telethon in Oakland 35 years ago, and at that moment headed toward a new teaching career. She began line dancing at a dance club in Newark in the East Bay. After six months, she started to teach. She has done that ever since.
But a few years ago, despite her energy and fitness, she began to feel that weaker and tired.
“One day, I came out of my class and felt terrible. I sat in my car and cried,” she said. “I thought something is wrong with me.”
Her cardiologist diagnosed her with the early stages of heart failure and put in a pacemaker to help regulate her heartbeat when it slowed. Marez felt better for some months.
“After a while, it wasn’t doing as much good it should have been,” she said. “That’s when they sent me to UC Davis. They told me I had end-stage heart failure.”
Expert care for advanced heart failure
The UC Davis Health Comprehensive Heart Failure Program provides individualized care from cardiologists who specialize in heart failure, cardiothoracic surgeons and cardiology-trained nurses, pharmacists and social workers. Their assessments showed that Marez's damaged heart, even with the pacemaker, could not pump enough blood to meet her body’s demand, causing weakness, fluid buildup and fatigue. Her UC Davis cardiologist recommended the LVAD.
“I asked if I could wait a few more months, until after Christmas,” Marez said. “He told me I would not make it that long. He said the LVAD could help give me a lot of my life back.”
A VAD is one of the few treatment options for improving survival and quality of life for patients of all ages with end-stage heart failure. It originally was an interim treatment for people awaiting a transplant or as a temporary part of cardiac care. But with the latest advances and guidance from experts like the multi-disciplinary team at UC Davis, it can be used indefinitely.
The VAD can be placed in the left, right or both ventricles, but is most often used in the left. The 10-ounce, 3-inch pump is implanted below the diaphragm and attached to the left ventricle and the aorta, the artery that carries oxygenated blood to the entire body. It is powered by two external batteries carried in underarm holsters, a shoulder bag or waist packs. (See illustration.)
Because of her age, Marez did not qualify for a transplant, but she was a good candidate for a lifetime LVAD. She said that after her procedure and three weeks in ICU, she did not want to do her rehab in the hospital.
“We laugh about it now, but I made every excuse t stay in bed,” Marez said. “It was so painful. I couldn't walk and could hardly move. So, one day they told me I had to teach them a line dance. I taught them the electric slide. It got me moving.”
When she returned to her Castro Valley home, Marez’s daughter helped change the batteries and the dressing. Her daughter had been given a bed at UC Davis Medical Center and stayed with Marez during her six-week recovery there.
“In the beginning, I wouldn’t touch the batteries,” Marez said. “I was afraid I’d do something wrong. It turned out, they’re pretty easy to handle, though they’re heavy to carry.”
Back on the dance floor
Within four months, Marez was back teaching line dancing at Bay Area senior centers. She also danced at local dance clubs. Since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, Marez walks on a treadmill and does leg exercises and dances a little on her own.
“All of us line dancers want to get back into it,” she says. “My center should be opening soon and I’ll teach again. I can dance like I used to, but I might not dance the whole dance every time if I get tired.”
Her reputation seems to be spreading through UC Davis Health. At a 2019 luncheon for LVAD patients, Marez was asked to show off a few dance steps.
“I started doing my thing,” she said, “and a couple nurses came up, then some of the patients. They told me after the luncheon that it was so successful, they want to do it bigger next year.”
She is planning something even bigger for the 2020 luncheon, which gives her the chance to celebrate her two life savers: LVAD and line dancing. She urges other LVADers to get up on the floor and try it anytime.
Marez's story encourages the UC Davis specialists who are seeking answers for the thousands of people with heart failure in our region.
"Alice validates the wonders of modern cardiac medicine and what it can do to improve well-being for those with advanced heart disease," said cardiologist Martin Cadeiras, director of the heart failure program at UC Davis. "She is an inspiration to our team as we work to bring options, hope and fulfilling lives to our patients."
So what saved Marez was the LVAD and the line dancing.
“Physically, I feel good. I watch my grandkids and my great grandkids,” Marez said. “And I can dance. I don’t know how people live without dancing.”