What Is a Silent Heart Attack and How Did It Put a Church Musician and Psychotherapist on the Heart Transplant List?

What Is a Silent Heart Attack and How Did It Put a Church Musician and Psychotherapist on the Heart Transplant List?

You can typically find Kemp Smeal enjoying the coast of Southern California in his free time.

He’s a talented professional musician who plays for two churches in Los Angeles and loves interacting with others. He exercises regularly and enjoys a healthy lifestyle. When he’s not playing the organ and piano, he’s busy running his own private practice in Long Beach as a psychotherapist.

“I love helping people feel inspired and I love making them feel better,” he says.

One day at work, however, Kemp realized he didn’t feel so good himself. He was with a client and noticed he was having trouble breathing. He quickly got himself to the doctor, who ordered him to go directly to an emergency room when he realized Kemp’s heart rate was sky-high at 165 beats per minute.

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After a series of tests at a local emergency room and admission to the hospital, a cardiologist still wasn’t able to offer much of an explanation. That’s when Kemp sought help at Keck Medicine of USC. The cardiology team at the USC CardioVascular Thoracic Institute discovered that Kemp’s heart was severely damaged, and he’d experienced a silent heart attack. The damage from the heart attack was so severe, that it was determined that Kemp would need a heart transplant. A week after being admitted to the hospital, he was placed on the transplant list.

“It was like a curtain came down on my life that day I went to the emergency room. I couldn’t resume my normal life,” Kemp says. “All I could do was sit around and wait.”

With no cardiac history and a true dedication to nutrition and fitness, Kemp was puzzled. The underlying cause of his heart attack was genetic. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, killing more than 600,000 people each year. Kemp was determined not to become part of that statistic.

“Through the whole journey, I worked on staying positive and optimistic because I had a goal,” he says. “I had to get through this and get on with my life because I felt like I had more work to do.”

And then something miraculous happened: 30 days after being listed at the highest priority level on the heart transplant list, Kemp Smeal got a new heart.

On March 19, Kemp was admitted into Keck Medicine of USC. Mark Cunningham, MD, assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery, and Mark Barr, MD, co-director of cardiothoracic transplantation, performed his surgery.

“I’m so grateful for my team of doctors and the entire medical and nursing staff that cared for me. I just can’t say enough about the care that I got at Keck Medicine of USC,” he says. “Not only did they save my life, but the way they cared for me when I was there and the follow-up care I have with Dr. Barr has just been phenomenal.”

Kemp was discharged only eight days after surgery. Once he got home, he committed to exercising, taking medication and staying on the road to recovery. Now, Kemp refuses to live his life anything short of it’s fullest potential.

That’s another example of The Keck Effect — giving patients a second chance at life and an opportunity to give back and inspire the world.

by Leonard Kim

Learn more about the USC CardioVascular Thoracic Institute. Call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit cvti.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.