A Special One-Year VAD Anniversary

William Shaw & Kris Wittersheim (VAD Coordinator)

In May of 2009, William Shaw, who has suffered from congestive heart failure for years, figured he had about two weeks left to live. Shaw, 72, had been in and out of the hospital for four months due to various heart-related troubles.

“I was just going down,” Mr. Shaw remembered during a recent visit to the Emory Transplant Center. “At the time, I was so weak that I couldn’t even sit up on the bed. If you sat me up, I’d fall over.”

But on May 22, 2009, Mr. Shaw underwent surgery and was implanted with a Ventricular Assist Device (VAD). The VAD procedure, discussed in detail here, is an emerging option for three types of heart failure patients: transplant candidates who are too sick to wait for a heart to become available, patients who may be heart transplant candidates but aren’t currently eligible for various reasons—such as obesity or smoking—and are getting sicker, and patients who aren’t transplant candidates due to other medical issues, or who (as in Mr. Shaw’s case) are elderly.

Simply put, the surgeons place a rotary pump under the heart (in the abdomen) to take over the function of the left side of the heart. This pump is dependent upon electricity—either batteries or AC power—at all times. The VAD does what the ailing heart can no longer do – it sends blood and oxygen to all areas of the body. Consequently, the VAD decreases heart failure symptoms, increases activity and drastically improves quality of life.

On May 18, 2010, almost one year after undergoing surgery, Mr. Shaw came in for his monthly checkup with me. So, how’s he doing? Not only is he now sitting up on his own, he’s enjoying life again. He took a hunting trip last November to South Dakota with his two sons, he works out three times a week, and he takes part in a number of retirement activities.

“My lifestyle has improved from one year ago,” Mr. Shaw said. “On a scale of 1-10, if 1 is the poorest and 10 is the best, I’ve gone from a 1 or 2 to a 7 or 8.”

In Mr. Shaw’s case, the VAD is destination therapy – meaning he’s not waiting for a heart transplant to make him better. The VAD is the cure.

Since receiving the procedure, Mr. Shaw has become a positive example for other heart transplant patients as they consider VAD surgery. He was even recently featured on a FOX 5 news report:

And when he visits Emory Clinic for his monthly check-ups, he spends time talking to other heart patients, and always asks if there is someone waiting in the hospital or being evaluated for a VAD that he may be able to talk to. His hope is to help them understand what they might be facing. His newfound independence, age, and story of recovery are an inspiration to others.

“When you’re my age, we all have things we have to work around,” Shaw said during his visit. “I’m just very thankful that it has worked out for me. They have taken care of me very well at Emory.”

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