Life-saving heart tech breakthrough could add years

BIRMINGHAM, Ala (WIAT) — Jimmy Ware had never been told about the left ventricular assist device—or LVAD–while he was seeing his cardiologist back home. He didn’t know if he would be a good candidate for the mechanical heart pump.

“Up until the last year or so I had been taking medications that had been controlling the symptoms,” he explained. “Over the last year, it gradually got worse. I actually went into some kidney failure, and on May 20th this coming year will be a year that I’ve had the LVAD implant.”

Ware came to UAB’s Kirklin Clinic with a referral from his doctor. He knew that he was likely headed for a heart transplant, but he’s been shocked by how much better he’s felt since getting the LVAD.

“I probably feel better now, physically, than I probably did three or four years ago,” Ware said.

Ware’s story isn’t uncommon. “Now if they can transplant me, I’m what they consider a well-patient,” he said. “I’m not sick or whatever, so my transplant, hopefully, will go better.”

Ware also said, thanks to the LVAD, he’s not in a hurry to get a new heart. He still has no idea how long his wait will be on the transplant list.

“At the beginning, we used to have to keep patients in the hospital if they were waiting for a heart transplant,” said Dr. Salpy Pamboukian, Medical Director of the Mechanical Circulatory Support Device Program. “It could be months. Now we’re able to send patients home. We’ve been able to do that for a long while. They have excellent quality of life. They can go back to pretty normal activities. So they’re able to either wait for a heart transplant at home, or we have patients now who are permanently on the VAD. That’s the way they live–with the device–who are not going to be getting a heart transplant. So that’s pretty incredible for our patients.”

Pamboukian estimates the longest patient that they’ve had living on the LVAD has been around 7 to 8 years. “These are patients that would not have survived, probably, a few months if it wasn’t for the VAD. So it’s just incredible that we’re able to increase their life that long, and not only just to live longer–but to feel so much better.”

The pumps have been around since the 1980’s, however; Pamboukian said they have seen the technology improve tremendously in the last decade. Ward said that most of the time, he doesn’t notice anything out of the ordinary with his pump. “A lot of times I have no pulse,” he shrugged, “but other than that I feel pretty much normal.”

“It’s open heart surgery to implant the pump,” Pamboukian explained. “The surgeon puts the pump next to the patient’s own heart, and then there’s a tube that’s placed from the heart to the pump–then another tube to the aorta, which is the main blood vessel in the body. The pump takes over for the circulating function of the left ventricle, and takes the blood out of the heart and pumps it to the body to all of the organs.”

Pamboukian encouraged patients to research their conditions. She said their local doctors might not be able to offer all of the options available these days. “We’re the only center in the state of Alabama that’s putting the devices in,” she said. “So patients who have advanced heart failure-which means the heart muscle is weak, there’s a lot of treatments such as these devices that could really improve people’s quality of life and help them live longer.”

There is also a new device at UAB that can be used when the heart is removed from the body: the total artificial heart. “Right now, the device is only used for patients who are awaiting a heart transplant,” Pamboukian said, “but in the future it’s possible, like with the other type of devices we have, that these might be something we send people home with–to live permanently.”

As for Ward, he said having the LVAD saved his life. “I was, I think, sick enough that I probably wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t been for this device,” he said.

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