It’s a Friday in November. Having just laid out lesson plans for his substitute teacher, Martin Vece closes the door to his English classroom at Canyon Springs High School, hops in his car and drives to his home in Summerlin. Once there, he finishes packing, then kisses his wife and three young daughters goodbye.
He’ll be gone for just a week. But it’s a big week: Vece, who is suffering from a congenital heart condition, is headed to Los Angeles for a round of tests that will determine if he’s finally ready for a new heart.
Days later, lying in a bed at UCLA Medical Center, Vece calls his wife, Lizzy. Tells her there’s been a change in plans: Doctors won’t let him leave. He needs a new heart. Immediately. Except tests show his lungs can’t take it after years of compensating for his bad heart. So first he needs surgery to implant a mechanical pump that will take pressure off his lungs.
He’ll have to stay in the hospital for a while, then remain in the area for six months so specialists can treat him. This means Lizzy needs to quit her job, pack up the house and pull their daughters out of school. She’ll have to find a home in the City of Angels that will allow a short-term lease. And she’ll have to do it quickly, by herself.
“My wife is like Superwoman,” Vece, 45, says. “When I think about it—and I always will—I don’t know how she pulled it off.”
This is not how an actor typically lands in L.A.
Vece grew up in chicago, where he did professional theater for a decade. But by 2001, he was ready to trade the stage and Chicago winters for a career and setting more conducive to starting a family with Lizzy, then his girlfriend.
Vece was always intrigued by Las Vegas, which he’d visited several times. When his father retired here, it became a “no-brainer” that he and Lizzy would follow.
He quickly launched a six-year run in the dinner-theater show Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. “Which I said I wasn’t going to do,” he acknowledges with a laugh. “But you need money. And I absolutely loved it.”
Still, Vece was set on forging a new path, and he kept going back to teaching. “Being onstage and performing and being in a classroom and teaching, there are a lot of similarities. That’s why I was drawn to it.”
Vece enrolled at UNLV, taking classes during the day and acting at night until he earned his teaching license and master’s degree in education in 2006. He’s taught English at Canyon Springs High ever since, finding feedback from students even more rewarding than the applause from an audience.
The same year he started teaching, Vece was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where a thickened heart muscle can lead to life-threatening arrhythmia. His brother, who is 12 years older, had just had a heart transplant for the same problem. “It completely changed my life as it progressed,” he says of his heart condition. By last summer, he couldn’t walk up stairs without taking a break. “That’s when I knew something was really, really up.”
With only kidney transplants performed in Nevada, Vece’s cardiologist sent him to UCLA. He checked in November 3. Doctors said if he hadn’t shown up when he did, he would have been dead in six months.
Doctors first predicted Vece would have a heart within 30 days—that is, until they discovered the problem with his lungs. Instead of a new heart, doctors told Vece he’d be getting a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, by Christmas. The next day, he had a 20-pound machine attached to a tube that ran through his stomach up to his heart, where it pumped 50 percent of his blood.
He was hospitalized in L.A. for five weeks and remained in the city for seven months, with his wife, daughters and sister-in-law (who flew from Mississippi to help) all crammed in a two-bedroom apartment. “It’s been like a reality TV show,” he says. “We have said a million times, the people in Hollywood are missing out. Because if they had a camera on us since last summer, they would have a killer show on their hands.”
The family recently moved back to Vegas, where Vece has been improving, the LVAD having relieved the pressure on his lungs. Yet he has days with zero energy. He has to fly to L.A. for monthly clinics. And he’s still on leave from teaching, with the financial burden perhaps the scariest part. “Without family and friends and fundraising,” he says, “I really don’t know where we’d be.”
As much as the LVAD helped, it’s also been a Catch-22: Because Vece is more stable, he dropped from the top of the transplant list; he’s now fluctuating between No. 17 and No. 45. So he waits for that phone call saying the perfect heart is ready. A heart that will let him jump in a swimming pool without damaging his LVAD. A heart that will let him follow his passion back into the classroom. A heart that will let him get back to what he’s been missing most. “My girls, they like to roughhouse or go out and kick the soccer ball. I can’t do physical activity with them, and that’s been a bummer,” he says, his Chicago accent softening for the first time.
“My 7-year-old, Lucia, she’s not crazy about cuddling anymore because the batteries and the LVAD, they lean into her and they hurt. So I’m like, come on man, I need this new heart so I can cuddle with my babies.”
To support Martin Vece, visit HelpHopeLive.org.