“You may have six months to live.”
The words hit Rick Kurth like a ton of bricks.
Since 2004, the attorney from Danville, Illinois, had been managing a virus in the left ventricle of his heart. On March 23, 2022, Rick was at an Indianapolis, Indiana, hospital, and he thought he was going home after some tests.
Instead, doctors told the then-72 year-old that his heart was not pumping blood the way it needed to. In other words, it was failing. Even worse, Rick says the providers told him he was not a candidate for a new heart.
So, after some initial skepticism and talks with his wife Dianne, Rick accepted a new partner in his life – one with wires and batteries that would be with him every second of every day: a left ventricular assist device (LVAD).
“A lot times I forget I even have it on,” Rick chuckles, reflecting on getting used to the life-saving device. “It is absolutely no problem.”
What is an LVAD?
Scott Cook, MD, is a cardiothoracic surgeon at OSF HealthCare in Urbana, Illinois, who has performed LVAD procedures in the past.
“What we do is take the blood out of their left ventricle and put it back into their aorta,” Dr. Cook says. “We bypass the weak [part of the] heart.”
Some LVAD patients are expected to get a heart transplant, so the device is temporary. Others, like Rick, are not transplant candidates, so the equipment would be permanent.
LVADs come with limitations, most notably around water. Swimming is likely out of the question. Returning to showering is a conversation with your care team. In Rick’s case, he took sponge baths for a time.
Getting behind the wheel again is also a process.
“Initially, for several months after the device is put in, [providers] don’t want people driving until they’ve recovered and are doing better,” Dr. Cook says.
“Most of these people lost their driving privileges before the operation,” due to their weakened state, Dr. Cook adds. “It’s a question of getting them back.”
Dr. Cook says the top concerns after an LVAD procedure are blood clots in the device and infection at the incision site. For the former, patients usually go on a blood thinner medication. For the latter, the patient has to be vigilant about changing bandages and keeping the site clean, which is usually a daily task.