As more people are living longer with LVADs — originally developed to keep people alive only until a heart transplant — patients like the 42-year-old from Champlin are opting to stay closer to home for their more-routine medical care. The purpose of a first-ever LVAD Shared Care symposium at the University of Minnesota on Friday was to help allay some of the fear and intimidation that health workers and primary care physicians may have in treating patients whose fragile hearts are kept beating by this increasingly common technology.
“I like seeing my cardiologist at Mercy. I want to keep seeing him,” said Johnson, who first discovered he’d had a heart attack at the Coon Rapids hospital before having his LVAD implanted at the University of Minnesota. He even volunteers at Mercy.
Left ventricular assist devices are implantable mechanical pumps that help pump blood from the lower left chamber of the heart into the aorta and then to the rest of the body. The device has a tube running from the left ventricle to the aorta and is part of the circulatory system. A power cable runs from the implanted pump to a control box that LVAD patients carry with them.
The first LVADs of 30 or 40 years ago would last only for days, said Dr. Peter Eckman, medical director of the Mechanical Circulatory Support Program at the University of Minnesota and organizer of the symposium. The next generation of devices developed in the 1990s and early 2000s lasted for months. Technology has advanced to the point that patients now are living with LVADs for years. While the device still is meant primarily to serve as a bridge to transplant, Eckman said an increasing number of patients are simply living with an LVAD for longer periods. Some are not good candidates for transplant, either because of age or they smoke or other reasons.
For them, life with an LVAD is the new normal. And primary health care providers are seeing them in their practices every day. What Eckman wants people to know is this: They’re not a crisis to be avoided. Many are living active, robust lives.
“We put these in to save people’s lives. That’s part of it,” he said. “But we want people to have their lives back.”
Peter Quimby, a Plymouth man living with an LVAD who the Star Tribune profiled in an article last fall, teaches a spinning class and participates in the Minneapolis Duathalon. Eckman knows of a former paratrooper who had a device implanted in his 80s and sped down a zip line in Costa Rica at 90. Another man, in his 70s, climbed Pikes Peak. Another plays hockey.
And their numbers are rising — from about 30 monitored by the university seven years ago to more than 100 today. In all, more than 5,000 people worldwide have an LVAD, including about 200 in Minnesota, Eckman said. Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and the Mayo Clinic are the other Minnesota hospitals that implant LVADs.
Eckman said there used to be a time when, if LVAD patients had something go wrong, they were sent back to the health center where their device was implanted. For many, he said, that’s no longer necessary.
Topics during Friday’s symposium touched on treating infections to collecting data from the device. The U, as part of its Shared Care program, works with about 10 health practices that have LVAD patients, from the Twin Cities to North Dakota.
Rogers, who received his LVAD in July 2011 and said he “feels pretty good,” wasn’t the only patient to lend his perspective. Greg Sperl, 56, of Inver Grove Heights, got his in March 2011 after a series of stents in his coronary arteries didn’t head off the worsening damage to his heart. Sperl put off getting his LVAD until after a trip to Las Vegas with his daughter — a trip the man who lost a son in 2008 refused to postpone.
Now, he is at the highest priority for a transplant. On Friday, Sperl was at the University Hospital to talk to the medical folks — and to try to get problems with blood clots cleared up. Clots are a particular risk for people with LVADs, Eckman said.
Life is meant to be lived, Sperl said. If he’s not afraid, health care workers he may encounter shouldn’t be either.
“I’m glad I have it,” he said of the small pump. “It beats pushing up on six feet of dirt. And that’s where I was headed.”