Acting fills his soul. An LVAD and a heart transplant have made it possible

June 5th, 2018
Actor Greg West puts on makeup before a play. West had heart failure and had both an LVAD and a heart transplant.
Actor Greg West puts on his makeup before performing in the show, Superior Donuts. West had severe heart failure and needed both an LVAD and a heart transplant. He’s now back on stage. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth

Rejection comes with the territory in acting.

Sometimes you get the part. Sometimes you don’t.

When Greg West, 56, auditioned for the play, Superior Donuts, the director sent him away after a short time.

West watched another actor read for the same part. The guy was good. West figured he was out of luck.

Days later, when the director called to offer West the part, he was shocked and elated.

It was his first to chance to act again after receiving a double transplant — both a heart and a kidney — one year ago at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.

“I’m thrilled, absolutely thrilled to be back on stage,” West said.

Superior Donuts plays through June 9 at the John Hand Theater in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood.

If you go:

  • The Play: Superior Donuts
  • Remaining shows: June 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m.
  • Information: 303-562-3232
  • Where: The John Hand Theater, 7653 E. 1st Place, Denver, CO 80230

West had been a smoker, but thought he was in relatively good health until he had unexplained swelling in his legs back in 2013 and learned he had severe heart problems. Eventually, West needed to have a special mechanical device implanted in his heart. Known as a left ventricular assist device or an LVAD, the pump kept West alive until a heart became available. Throughout his ordeal, a dedicated team of nurses and doctors cared for West and cheered him on. He performed in some plays with his LVAD, stashing batteries for his device in football pants hidden beneath his costumes. But that was cumbersome. Now, he’s free again to play others on stage, the surest way he knows to be fully himself.

‘Superfan’ nurses attend all of West’s plays

West grew up in the Denver area and auditioned for his first play as a freshman at the University of Northern Colorado. By accident, he also started working with the wardrobe crew and discovered he had a talent for costume design. He kept acting and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in costume design.

Greg West sits on stage dressed as "Max" an angry Russian business owner in the play, Superior Donuts. He had to have an LVAD and a heart transplant and is now back on stage.
Actor Greg West says he learns a lesson from each character he plays. In Superior Donuts, he plays Max, an intense and racist man. After suffering heart problems and playing Max, West said he learned not to be so driven. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth

He now runs the costume shop at Metro State University.

“I am right in my wheelhouse and I love the faculty and students. I do all of the cutting and prepping. I create patterns and sew.”

Working as a costume designer pays the bills while acting fills West’s soul.

In Superior Donuts, West gets to play exactly the kind of part he loves: someone totally different from himself. His character, Max, is an intense, racist, Russian busybody who wants to buy the donut shop next door to his business. The leading man owns the donut shop and contends with a mid-life crisis while befriending a young African American writer who works for him. Throughout the play, West gets to hurl himself into the action, earning some laughs as he pontificates and makes wild assumptions. By the end of the play, his character is drunk and dances around on stage as tragedy leads the other characters to find meaning in their lives.

It’s a joy for West to get to be so physical and help transport audience members to a distinct Chicago neighborhood.

“I love character acting. These parts are usually more interesting than the leading man,” West said. “This play is pretty funny. It’s a dark comedy with very touching moments and very serious moments, just like life.”

West says he always learns lessons from the roles he plays. In Superior Donuts, he learned “not to be Max.”

“The thing Max and I have in common is we’re both pretty driven. This whole heart thing was very hard for me. Physically, I could not do what I wanted to do all the time.”

Greg West poses with providers from his UCHealth LVAD team. From left to right, Jami Bennett, Kristi Forsmark,Greg West, Maria Marsala and Jessica Byrd.
Greg West poses on the set of Superior Donuts with providers from his UCHealth LVAD team. From left to right, Jami Bennett, Kristi Forsmark,Greg West, Maria Marsala and Jessica Byrd.

When Max went from feeling great to suffering a potentially deadly silent heart attack, to needing an LVAD, then a transplant, his UCHealth team supported him throughout his health journey. Now many have become friends and superfans who attend all of West’s shows.

First sign of heart trouble: swelling in the legs

Like many actors, West worked multiple jobs so he could perform on the weekends. He didn’t have health insurance and, as a result, wasn’t getting regular checkups. He felt fine until he started feeling lousy.

“I hadn’t been remotely sick,” West said. “I was getting ready to do the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. My knees and ankles kept swelling. I always thought it was because I had jobs that had me on my feet a lot.”

Greg West poses in the dressing room before perfomring in his newest play.Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.
Greg West poses in the dressing room before perfomring in his newest play.Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

The swelling would usually go down, so West thought he was OK. Then his calves ballooned and sores that made him feel like he had leprosy developed on his legs, ankles and feet.

“It was very Biblical,” said West, who is funny both on and off stage.

He finally visited the ER at University of Colorado Hospital, where he connected with Dr. Peter Buttrick.

Buttrick diagnosed West with congestive heart failure and diabetes. He helped West qualify for Medicaid, so he could get regular health care.

Buttrick also loved hearing about West’s plays. In the Shakespeare festival, West had parts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Richard III.

“I would go to clinic appointments while they were trying to treat my medical problems. Then, I’d perform wearing a pad in my shoe because of the sores,” West said.

He got a kick out of entertaining his doctors and nurses.

“I guess I was the first theater person they had had as a patient. They were just fascinated,” West said.

Headshot of Dr. Larry Allen.
Dr. Larry Allen.

He would have preferred a little less drama when it came to his health. West’s heart problems worsened to the point that he needed the LVAD.

That’s when Dr. Larry Allen and the team at the UCHealth Heart Failure Program stepped in. West underwent open-heart surgery for LVAD implantation over the Labor Day holiday in 2015 and his doctors later placed him on the list for a heart transplant. At the same time, his kidney was failing, so he would also eventually need a kidney along with a heart.

“LVADs are partial artificial hearts that improve blood flow in patients who are dying of heart failure,” said Allen, who is also an associate professor of cardiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“Greg’s prior silent heart attack had done major damage, and the rest of his heart was wearing out,” Allen said. “Medicines could not stabilize him any longer, and so the options were either to surgically implant an electrically powered LVAD pump or allow Greg to die from his heart failure. Fortunately, he was able to get the LVAD.”

LVAD provided a bridge to a transplant

West had a love-hate relationship with his LVAD. It was keeping him alive until he could get a heart transplant. But, lugging it everywhere was tough. And uncertainty about his future was haunting him.

Greg West reaches out to give his fans from UCHealth a hug after performing in the show, Superior Donuts.
Greg West greets his fans from his UCHealth team after the show.

For the first few months after the LVAD surgery, Allen thought it was best for West not to act. But West became so depressed that his team gave him to go-ahead to audition for plays again. West was overjoyed when a director gambled that he could act with his LVAD and cast him in a play called The Boys Next Door.

A fellow LVAD patient had come up with an inventive solution for hauling around five pounds of batteries and five pounds of additional equipment. That patient found that football pants had plenty of pockets for pads. Instead of pads, West filled his pants with batteries and LVAD equipment and hid them under his costumes.

The Boy Next Door was set in a halfway house for men with special needs. West played the part of a severely developmentally disabled man, who at one point, leaps up and stands on a chair.

Among those in the audience were some of West’s LVAD nurses, including Kristi Forsmark.

Greg West's UCHealth LVAD team surrounds him after a recent performance.
Greg West’s UCHealth LVAD team surrounds him after a recent performance.

“That time when he jumped up on the chair really scared us,” said Forsmark, an LVAD coordinator, who hasn’t missed one of West’s plays since she met him.

She describes herself as a “superfan” for West and a “superfan for all of our patients.”

West in turn, loves entertaining his medical team both on and off stage. He liked ribbing Allen as he led teams of students through the hospital. Once, when Allen stopped by West’s hospital bed, he was watching Project Runway and flipping through Vogue.

“I was ripping out the perfume samples and Dr. Allen said, ‘What are you doing?’”

West showed Allen the fragrant ads and said Allen was mystified.

“There are perfume samples in magazines?” he asked.

“Of course,” West replied. “Where have you been?”

All teasing aside, West adores his caregivers and loves checking in on milestones in their lives, like marriages and new babies.

“They thought I was charismatic and funny. I enjoyed performing from my hospital bed,” West said. “They embraced my life. They took marvelous care of me. I got such amazing care from all of these men and women.’’

Along with Forsmark and other LVAD providers, fellow nurse and LVAD coordinator, Jessica Byrd, attended a recent performance of Superior Donuts.

Byrd said getting to see West pursue his passions makes her team’s work worthwhile.

“This is the whole reason we do our jobs,” Byrd said. “He was so, so sick and went through an incredible journey. Then, he was able to go on from an LVAD to a transplant and be able to do the things he loves.  He gives you hope for the next patient.”

‘You’ve got this’

West remembers the exact moment he got the call a year ago that both a heart and kidney had come through for him.

He had just stepped out of the shower. He called friends who were taking him to the hospital and gleefully packed up all his LVAD gear.

As he arrived at the hospital, a group of LVAD nurses met West and applauded him, just like when he’s on stage.

Greg West and his health care team pose on the set for the play, Superior Donuts. West is thrilled to be back on stage afte rnearly dying from heart failure. They sit around a table with a sign that says "Open" behind them.
Greg West and his health care team pose on the set for the play, Superior Donuts. West is thrilled to be back on stage afte rnearly dying from heart failure.

They had seen him act in some tragedies. This time, everyone knew this drama would have a happy ending.

Blessed with new organs, West is acting his heart out again.

Right before he goes out on stage, he stands in total darkness in the wings of the theater and he gives himself a little pep talk.

“You’ve got this,” he tells himself as he opens and closes his fists to pump himself up.

Then he makes his entrance, his new heart beats just a little faster, a Russian accent bursts from his lips and West is commanding the stage.

“Acting for me is like breathing,” West said. “When I’m on stage, I feel like myself again.”