UTMC heart procedure new to NW Ohio gets local man home for holidays

December 16, 2011 | News, UToday
By Jon Strunk

This Thoratec illustration shows how the LVAD is powered by a battery pack.

Patients suffering from heart failure in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan no longer need to make the journey to Ann Arbor, Columbus or Cleveland because The University of Toledo Medical Center has developed a program making the life-saving technology of mechanical, artificial hearts known as left ventricular assist devices (LVADs) available in the community.

Frequently, patients with advanced heart failure who are on the heart transplant lists are prime candidates to receive these devices as a bridge to transplant once a heart becomes available. Patients who are not able to be transplant candidates also receive LVADs as the final and ultimate treatment that will be with them for the rest of their lives.

James Howell’s congestive heart failure was diagnosed in 1995, but it was in fall 2011 that his condition began to quickly deteriorate.

“One minute I felt fine and the next I was so short of breath that I couldn’t walk from one end of my house to the other,” said Howell, who had been on medicine to treat his condition. “The failure happened so quickly, the LVAD turned out to be my only option.”

Like Howell, patients with advanced heart failure can deteriorate quickly and unpredictably, and it is wise to consider whether a patient is a candidate for LVAD therapy before it’s too late.

“Patients and their families have had to travel outside of our community or out of state to get access to the latest LVAD technology now available at UTMC ” said Dr. Thomas Schwann, chief of cardiothoracic surgery. “With more than 300,000 annual deaths from heart failure a year, heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, and this is a big step forward for the region as UTMC continues to enhance its comprehensive heart failure program.”

This X-ray from Thoratec shows the internal placement of the device.

Recruited by Schwann and others at UTMC to direct the LVAD program, Dr. Mark Bonnell had arrived at the hospital just weeks before Howell’s condition worsened and ended up performing the procedure.

“Jim has had a remarkable recovery, and I think that’s a tribute to how seriously he has taken his responsibilities, the fabulous support structure he has around him, and the outstanding team of doctors and clinicians here at UTMC,” Bonnell said.

LVADs are designed to help failing hearts continue to pump blood; looking out two years later, the devices have increased patient survival from less than 10 percent without it to 70 percent.

“Patients with heart failure have seen dramatic advances in treatment options, including new medications, defibrillators and advanced pacing devices, allowing them to live longer and better lives,” Schwann said. “Unfortunately, heart failure is a progressive disease, and those patients with advanced heart failure will require mechanical LVADs and heart transplantation.”

Watch this short video of how the LVAD works.

Howell said the support from his family and his St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church community has been instrumental as he learns to navigate life with new requirements.

“Eight of my friends from church came in and spoke with Dr. Bonnell so they could educate themselves on what they needed to know about the LVAD,” Howell said. “I’ve been in a number of hospitals in my life, and I’ve never had an experience as good as the one I’ve had at UTMC.”

The LVAD device is implanted in a muscular pocket below the heart and an electrical lead called a driveline exits out the right side of the body. Howell has battery packs he uses throughout the day.

“The quality of life gap between assist devices and transplant continues to narrow, and the current generation of the LVAD provides a great deal of mobility for patients to return — for the most part — to the lives they want to live,” Bonnell said. “They can play in their softball leagues; they can travel on airplanes.”

In fact, Howell said Bonnell predicted he’ll be playing golf by spring.

“I didn’t go through all this just to sit around,” Howell said. “I want a good active life, and the LVAD is going to give it to me.”

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