Groundbreaking Heart Device Keeping Patients Alive

By nesita kwan
|  Tuesday, Oct 22, 2013  |  Updated 6:42 PM CDT
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Former VP Dick Cheney lauds the most widely used LVAD called the HeartMate II for helping to keep him alive, and other Chicago patients concur. Nesita Kwan reports.

Former VP Dick Cheney lauds the most widely used LVAD called the HeartMate II for helping to keep him alive, and other Chicago patients concur. Nesita Kwan reports.

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Former Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday released a book called "Heart" that details his medical journey and the advances that kept him alive.

Cheney has called the process "wondrous and magical," and he's not the only one raving about it.

Throughout the Chicago area, people with similar stories say they are only alive because they were born as medical technology started to exponentially improve, particularly developments in the cardiac field.

Jim Armstrong, 47, said if his heart problems had started 10 years ago, he wouldn't be telling this story. Armstrong is the father of three girls, an avid sailor who's only missed two Mackinac races since he was 16, and a man who almost died in 2010.

The then-44-year-old financial adviser said he's so rarely sick that when he came down with flu-like symptoms, he didn't think much of it.

He told his wife, "I'm going to the ER this morning, and it's probably no big deal," but when the doctors heard his symptoms and then "hooked me up to an ekg machine, they quickly told me I was having a heart attack."

In disbelief, Armstrong told them, "no I'm not, isn't there something else that can cause these symptoms?"

That something else was an infection in the lining of his heart that progressed so rapidly in two weeks that "they actually brought my family out to say goodbye."

But he hung on, despite his failing kidneys and liver, though he said it was clear that he would need a heart transplant. In the meantime, he needed something that would keep him alive.

His cardiac surgeon, Northwestern doctor Ed McGee, suggested a surgery that back then required emergency FDA approval. It involved implanting two golf-ball sized turbines in Armstrong's chest.

"It takes the pressure off the heart, gives your body the blood flow it needs when the heart is too weak to supply oxygen to the body and your organs start to fail," said Dr. Mcgee who is the surgical director of heart transplantation and the mechanical assistance program at Northwestern's Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute.

For Armstrong, the Heartware device meant going from a hospital bed to going home, going shopping and even exercising.

He did have some strange doctor's visits because the "machines just push blood, and there's no regular heart beating," he explained. Doctors and nurses unfamiliar with his condition would "try to get a pulse, and there's no pulse."

And Armstrong always stayed near a power source, even checking with the utilities to be sure his house would be the first to get power back if the power went out. He never went anywhere without back-up batteries, because as Dr. McGee explains, those batteries are what powers the "turbines that pull blood out of the main pumping chamber of the heart and then pumps it around the heart. The heart itself is not beating, it's just the flow from the device "

As Armstrong got stronger and his organs improved, the surgery that would get him a new heart, one that doesn't need plugging in, was something doctor and patient knew would be the next step.

Three years ago, Jim had a successful procedure, and today, he remains amazed by what doctors were able to do. He's back at work, already thinking about the next sailing season, and says he feels great.

"I say today what a great time to be sick," Armstrong explained. "It's a little perverse, but the advances have been amazing."

For the doctor who did the life-saving surgery, it isn't just that these patients survive. It's that they emerge telling him "I haven't felt this good in years."

"They have the energy to get up and go, to do what they want, to shop, to play golf."

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