four older people with heart failure wearing an LVAD

What Is an LVAD?

If you’re a Grey’s Anatomy TV show fan, you might remember a few episodes from season 2 when a man named Denny Duquette had an LVAD which led to a love story between two characters. I remember some of my non-medical friends asking me about LVADs, what they were, and why some people need them.

What is an LVAD?

LVAD stands for left ventricular assist device. It is a surgically implanted pump that helps the heart function. It doesn’t replace the function of the heart, it just helps make it easier to do its job. It is battery operated and helps the heart pump blood to the body.

The pump itself pulls the blood from the left ventricle and pushes it out through the aorta which is the large artery that delivers blood to the body. The pump is battery-operated and a set of batteries usually lasts anywhere from 8 to 12 hours depending on the demand of the heart.

The device itself weighs around one pound and when you include the equipment that comes with it that you would wear it puts it closer to 4 pounds. When a person has an LVAD they might not have a palpable pulse. This is due to there being a continuous flow of blood through the heart without it needing to actually beat.

End-stage heart failure

In end-stage heart failure, the heart can no longer pump blood effectively and leads to severe symptoms. Those include shortness of breath even at rest which requires supplemental oxygen, excessive edema (swelling), significant fatigue, reduced ejection fraction, and frequent urination. In this stage, the treatments for earlier stages have been tried and despite maximum therapy, symptoms are still present both day and night.

Why is LVAD used?

An LVAD is used for end-stage heart failure. It is most commonly surgically placed as bridge therapy when a person is in end-stage heart failure and waiting for a heart transplant. An LVAD is sometimes used while waiting for the heart to gain strength back and be able to effectively pump blood on its own. Sometimes they are implanted for a short time after major heart surgery to help the heart heal for a couple of weeks to months. LVAD may also be placed in people who are in end-stage heart failure but are not eligible for a heart transplant.

How long can you have an LVAD?

The answer to this isn’t an easy one because there is a multitude of factors that can affect the outcome and time with an LVAD. Most often they are used as a temporary solution while waiting for a transplant as mentioned above, however, there are some people who have had one for the long term.

The procedure to place an LVAD requires open-heart surgery and does come with risks. Those include bleeding, infection, stroke, right-sided heart failure, and mechanical failure of the device. It is important to discuss the risks vs. benefits with your doctor before making any decisions that are best for your situation. The LVAD can be a life-sustaining device and is definitely a possibility for many in end-stage heart failure.

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