Joe and Becky Miller celebrated 34 years of marriage on Valentine’s Day shortly after Becky retired from teaching physical education and coaching sports at Davie High School in Mocksville.

But the big reason the couple were smiling and laughing again, they say, is because Joe is back to his old, cut-up self following a life-changing LVAD heart procedure at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center. Before the surgery, the 57-year-old’s condition had deteriorated so much that doctors said he only had a few months to live.

Joe’s spirits were so high not long after his surgery that he even wore his “rock-star suit.” It’s a special suit his wife picked up for him that’s tie-dye colored especially for a follow-up appointment, inspired by his heart surgery team frequently referring to him as their “rock star.”

“I was in a dark place for 15 years,” said Joe, whose condition had deteriorated to the extent that he had trouble even walking. “Now, I get to shoot baskets with my grandson and watch his ball games. I get to go to the arts center and look at my granddaughter’s paintings. I get to create things as a craftsman.”

What is LVAD?

Not long ago, the LVAD (left ventricle assist device) procedure that Joe received was only available at a few scattered academic medical centers. Today, the procedure has become more accessible. A lot of people first heard of LVAD a few years ago when former vice president Dick Cheney received one before his heart transplant.

In some cases, like Cheney’s, the procedure can be a bridge to a later heart transplant surgery. For others, it’s a “destination” therapy, and the patient can live with the device for years. (Joe said he would like to eventually get his weight down enough to pursue a transplant, which his doctor agreed is a possibility.)

“Basically, it’s a propeller-run pump,” said Dr. David Smull, a cardiologist at the Novant Center and Miller’s heart doctor. “When you insert one end of this pump into basically the tip of the left side of the heart (the main pumping chamber), this propeller sucks the blood from the heart and puts it into the main blood vessel of the body, the aorta, and basically does the work of the left side of the heart.”

The device is located inside the heart, but it’s controlled by a controller and batteries that are attached to a harness under his shirt.

“Before his heart failure was so bad that he couldn’t exercise. He was short of breath the whole time,” said Smull. “Now he feels much better and is doing so much more. Rehab and exercise will also play an important role in his recovery.”

The lure to Mocksville

Joe and Becky met in Indiana, where Becky was a waitress at the restaurant where Joe cooked. She had trouble finding a teaching job right out of college. They worked together for a few years before Becky got her first full-time teaching gig at a middle school in Davie County, and they made the big move.

Joe worked first in a textile mill, learning welding and picking up other handy skills along the way. That’s how he came to repair broken and neglected guitars at a friend’s music shop in Winston-Salem and crafted his own copper and turquoise jewelry. However, if there’s something that stands out about Joe, it’s his sense of humor.

He laughs now at how immediately after surgery, he was worn-out and could only muster the words, “I love you.”

“Everybody who worked at the hospital, even if it was someone bringing me a bowl of soup, that’s what I’d tell them: ‘I love you.’” He still had bad days but almost immediately felt better than he had felt for 15 years.

Meanwhile, a lot has been going on around the Miller home in downtown Mocksville. Their daughter and her family recently moved in to help take care of Joe. Not long after, Joe and Becky welcomed their seventh grandchild, who is now living with them. It’s a little hectic but a lot of fun, they said.

Joe was also a little overwhelmed initially to hear his health options before his procedure but said he couldn’t be happier now that he’s made it this far. “I have to say, after going through everything, there was a lot more good than bad.”