A person stands inside a silhouette of a body with its hand over its heart with glowing rays of light.

A Blessing in Disguise: Recovery Revealed When Pump Stops

Recently, thousands of patients with left ventricular assistance devices (LVAD), or heart pumps, received the news that their implanted device underwent a mandatory FDA recall. What the what?! That’s right, a major medical device company – Medtronic – had its HeartWare pumps recalled. 

Reports revealed that the LVADs won’t always restart if the pump stops (or powers off). Imagine that! So, since the device was recalled, doctors are no longer putting them in. If you don’t have an LVAD, you may be wondering what happens if the pump stops. Well, that’s where my story begins.

How can the pump stop?

HeartWare LVADs use two external batteries and a controller. Your pump must be connected to two power sources - two batteries or a battery and a wall charger. When you reattach the battery or wall charger, you can usually hear a faint “click”, but that’s not always guaranteed. '

You change your batteries, one at a time when they are low. If you are plugged into a wall, you disconnect either the wall charger or the battery, but not both! When both power sources are disconnected, the controller sounds an EXTREMELY LOUD alarm. It powers down and the pump stops. Ideally, simply reconnecting one power source makes the pump restart. At least, that’s what supposed to happen.

Houston, we have a problem!

Every LVAD has warning lights telling you how much power your battery has, or which power source is attached. LVAD patients also receive training on what to do if you controller alarms - switch controllers (with new batteries attached).

When my pump failed, it happened while disconnected from the wall charger to switch to two batteries. I heard the warning sound indicating “low battery” and attempted to change the battery while remaining plugged into the wall. In both cases, I didn't know there was no power from the wall charger. 

So, what happened? BLARING ALARMS! The first time, I followed my training, performed a controller exchange, and the pump restarted. The second time, I wasn’t so lucky.

It's recovery or bust

If the controller powers down, the LVAD team expects it to restart immediately following a battery/controller exchange. That’s why they give LVAD patients training. If it doesn’t restart within a certain amount of time or after multiple attempts, doctors will not attempt to restart it.

As time passes, a blood clot can form because blood isn’t flowing properly. If doctors try to restart it and a clot is present, the clot could travel to the heart and lead to death. Therefore, if the pump doesn’t restart as expected, doctors prepare for one of three options – a pump exchange, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO or life support), or heart transplant! Anyone with a heart pump WILL BE IN CRISIS if they are not in recovery!

A hidden miracle

Hypothetically, LVADs give your heart a break so it can heal. Over time, doctors can gradually slow down the pump to see if a person’s heart is working better. I didn’t have that option thanks to the pandemic. Furthermore, recovery in LVAD patients is considered rare. So, as far as my doctors knew, I was still in end-stage heart failure with anejection fraction of 10-15% when my pump stopped.

That meant the plan was to fly me out for a heart transplant – and they found a heart. But, unbeknownst to everyone – even me – my heart was in recovery! There were no test showing I was on the road to recovery. In fact, it was the opposite. Was it a miracle? YES!

A third chance at life

The LVAD gave me a second chance at life. I was facing hospice at one point, but no more. Since I was in recovery, I chose to bless someone else with the heart they found for me and decided to have my pump plugged (or decommissioned) instead of removed. I wasn’t staying in the hospital any longer than I had to because this DID happen during a pandemic.

Today, I’m still on the recovery road and only go to my cardiologist twice a year instead of once a month! And I’m focused on finding yet another new normal and enjoying my third chance at life – one for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Ghost! AMEN!

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