Almost 80, Valet Doesn’t Let Heart Pump Slow Him Down
One in an ongoing series
Sears Upchurch is pushing 80 years old and had a heart pump implanted last year to keep him alive. You might think he was ready to retire from his job as a valet at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia.
After all, he has to wear a heavy vest with the two battery packs that keep the heart pump going and are attached through wires into his chest. And he’s 50 or 60 years older than most of his colleagues, who call him Pop.
But stay home? Be idle? Not an option.
“I’m a workaholic,” he says.
“He worked all of his life, ever since I’ve known him,” says Janice Upchurch, his wife of 57 years, “and he was 19 when I met him.”
Sometimes Upchurch worked two full-time jobs at a time, mostly as a trailer mechanic. Other times, he had a part-time job and a full-time job. When he retired from one job, he got another one.
So at the end of April, after recovering from surgery at Einstein to implant the left ventricular assist device (LVAD), Upchurch returned to work. “I’m the oldest one there,” he says. “They look up to me, and some of them listen to what I tell them.”
Indeed, Upchurch is still competitive with his colleagues. “I want to be the fastest,” he says.
And he does have an edge. When a car with a manual transmission pulls into the valet area, he’s often the only one who knows how to drive it.
The ‘57 Chevy Project
“I like what I do,” he says. “And I’m trying to get my ’57 Chevy running.”
Ah, yes, the ‘57 Chevy, Upchurch’s baby, an iconic classic car his family calls the “Batmobile.” At the moment, it’s sitting in a garage in disrepair.
In his zealousness, Upchurch changed virtually every system in the car, and now. . . it doesn’t work.
The car was given to him many years ago by his brother. “I’ve been working on it off and on ever since,” he says.
“It was a small block, and now it’s a V-8 big block. I put in disc breaks in the front and back. I did most of it myself.” Upchurch says. “I put in two ’59 Chevy tail lights. It looks like a big dragon coming down the street, with hood and slanted eyes on the bottom.”
It will take money to get the car working again, and that’s one reason Upchurch says he’s still working. (Janice Upchurch adds that he’s also working to help pay for the medications he needs to take post-surgery.)
On the rare times when he isn’t working, Upchurch likes to hunt – with a bow and arrow. He loves to read hunting and classic car magazines, watch This Old House on television, and play tennis on a Nintendo Wii. Upchurch and his wife were regular tennis players until she fell and was badly injured.
Five years ago, Upchurch was between jobs when his oldest daughter, Janice – who had the same name as her mother – suggested he work as a valet to keep him occupied. At the time, she was a manager at Einstein. Janice, one of the couple’s four children, died last year of cancer.
From Heart Failure to a Heart Pump
It was around the time of Janice’s death that Upchurch’s health began to deteriorate. He had been taking medicine for heart failure and “was admitted three times for heart failure symptoms the year before his LVAD,” says Einstein VAD coordinator Timothy Robbins, BSN, CCRN.
“It’s well known that more than one heart-failure-related admission to the hospital in a year is a sign of someone failing medical therapy,” Robbins said. “These patients are at a significant risk to die from their heart failure unless an advanced therapy is considered.”
Upchurch wasn’t a candidate for a heart transplant for a few reasons, including his age. And after first rejecting the idea of the LVAD, he reconsidered. “I thought about it, and I figured, I got a couple of years.”
An LVAD is a mechanical device that supports the heart’s function. Originally, it was designed as a bridge to a heart transplant, but it has since become a primary therapy for patients who don’t qualify for a transplant.
On October 20, 2021, Upchurch had the LVAD implanted and also had an aortic valve replaced. He was hospitalized for two weeks, underwent inpatient cardiac rehab, and continued recovering at home. His wife, Janice, acknowledges it was a physical and emotional struggle at first, but now he’s doing well.
“He’s doing fantastic now,” says Janice. “He’s really begun to accept and adjust. He’s doing really well and is happy to be back at work.”
And just maybe he can get that ’57 Chevy working again, too.