LAKE PLACID — Dave Bernardini, you could say, has had a change of heart — for the better. The 72 year-old former Pennsylvania police officer turned 2 years old this week. How is that possible? Two years ago, on April 13, Bernardini was given the gift of life in the form of a heart transplant.
Bonnie and Dave Bernardini have been married for 14 years. The couple met when they were both police officers in Pennsylvania. They eventually moved to Florida to get out of the snow and retire. Even during retirement, they were both very active and loved to travel, especially on cruises and rode motorcycles.
“I have always been very active,” Dave said. “I walked every day. The only thing that wasn’t right was my heart. I was healthy otherwise.”
In the summer of 2004, Dave underwent a heart valve replacement and bypass, ablation and received a pacemaker.
“Everything seemed fine for about a year,” Bonnie said. “During a routine exam with Dr. Debra Dowd, she diagnosed Dave with congestive heart disease.”
After trying to get the right treatment plan, Dr. Dowd referred Dave to the Orlando Transplant Institute, now AdventHealth Transplant Institute. He was to be seen for a consultation for a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) heart pump. At one point, Dave said his heart was only operating at 5%.
“I didn’t like the idea of the LVAD for me,” Dave said. “I told the doctors that I wanted to go home and think about it. They told me, ‘if you leave you will not be coming back.’ They said the only alternative was a heart transplant. They sent me straight to the hospital and they did tests for the next two weeks to get me on the transplant waiting list.”
They truly meant their vows of loving each other through sickness and health and even death. They have done it all and have come out on the other side. When Dave was in the hospital, Bonnie was able to stay with him by residing in the Bartch House for transplant patients and their families.
Friends from their Covered Bridge neighborhood helped the couple too. Jackie and Randy Bennett and Anne Marie Nord helped the couple keep their house and plants in order. The most important thing for the Bernardinis was their cat. They knew it was in good care.
During the 52-day stay at the hospital, Dave was called twice for a transplant. On April 9, they had a false alarm, which is a possibility in every donor surgery. After Dave was prepped and put under, but the donor heart was deformed on the back side and the surgery was cancelled.
“I woke up and thought I would hurt more. That’s when my wife told me that it was a no-go,” Dave said.
The real call came on April 13, 2017, The surgery lasted about six hours. Bonnie never left the ICU waiting room. She did have friends with her. She said the doctors and nurses were excellent at keeping her informed.
“I cannot say enough about the nurses,” Bonnie said. “They would let me know what was going on every 15 minutes. You can tell that this was what they were meant to do.”
Dave wanted to donate his damaged heart to science so they could try and help others. Bonnie wanted to remind the nurses about Dave’s wish to give his heart to science.
“The nurse said, ‘Yeah, it’s already been done,’” she said.
Bonnie was a little shocked when the implant doctor wheeled by a cooler with the new donor heart in it. She hadn’t thought about what would have happened to Dave if the donor heart was bad.
“I guess the machines would have kept him alive,” she said.
After recovering in ICU, the healthcare professionals wanted Dave up and walking. It was then, they found pain killers were not his friends. After those were out of his system, Dave was up in no time doing laps around the nurse stations with only Tylenol necessary once and a while.
A brief stint in the Bartch House for follow up appointments and the couple headed back to Highlands County. Dave said he never did physical therapy. He simply started walking and doing his normal routine. He is on anti-rejection medications and will hopefully be on the lowest maintenance dose soon.
Because of sun exposure limitations from the medications, the couple have gotten rid of their motorcycles. Don’t feel too badly for Dave, he has replaced his need for speed with a then new, 2017 Mustang fastback. Bonnie created an organ donation insignia that has been affixed to the car. The couple want to raise awareness for organ donation.
“I think everyone should do it,” Dave said. “It doesn’t affect them or cost anything.”
Obviously, Bonnie is a big proponent for organ donation. It saved her husband.
“You do have some guilt because someone has died,” Bonnie said. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to give Dave’s old heart to science; maybe they can help other people. I think everyone should donate. It’s something you never think about until it affects someone you love or yourself.”
Dave said his immediate plans are to live to be 100 and be able to go back on cruises. He especially wants to go to Alaska and Hawaii.