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Life with an LVAD

 

 Former Vice President Dick Chaney made headlines when he received an LVAD. He experienced a rough time following the surgery and almost didn’t make it. But, he was a lot sicker that I was at the time, and his surgery was done on an emergency basis to save his life. He recovered and from all I read he was doing quite well, living an almost normal life. Mr. Chaney had his LVAD for twenty months before he received a heart transplant. That was about average; two years seemed to be the time between the LVAD surgery and the transplant. You have to work your way up the transplant list.

 

My surgery to implant the device began on the morning of May 22, 2013. The next several days were a blur. Because of severe pain from what the doctors called a rib rub (the pump was rubbing against my rib cage), I received large doses of pain medication. My family tells stories of me seeing bugs crawling on the ceiling, and while making typing motions declaring that I was working on the computer. I remember one hallucination in particular. Molly, the LVAD coordinator, came in to teach Faye how to dress my drive line site. (The drive line came out of my right chest area and was connected to the batteries or power supply to power the pump) In my dream, they rolled me out and into this beautiful large room. Every things was pure white and there were columns and statues everywhere. I was fascinated just looking around and taking it all in. I was sure it was real, but sometime later when I asked Faye where they had taken us that day, she said, “nowhere, we were right in your room.” When I have shared that story some have asked, “Do you think it was heaven you were seeing?” I don’t know, it could have been.

 

After several days the pain began to ease and I required less medication. I was extremely weak and required help getting up, and walking was a chore. I gained a whole new appreciation for nurses, aids, and all the hospital staff who care for their patients. These people are some of the most patient, kind, and loving people you can imagine; I give thanks to God for them.

 

Life with an LVAD is not all that bad, you just have to make some adjustments. There are pros and cons to having this device. On the negative side, you must be attached to either the batteries (there are two of them about the size of an old VHS cassette tape, plus a control unit that fits in a “fanny pack”), or a power supply that sits beside your bed and you plug into at night. You are limited by 20 feet of cord when hooked to the power supply. I could get to the bathroom, but that was it. Wearing the batteries in the day was not too bad, but they were warm and as the weather got hot they were uncomfortable at times. Hiding everything under my clothes was a challenge also. The drive line site that came out of my right side had to have the dressing changed daily. Faye took care of that chore which was inconvenient at best. You also had to take your “go bag” with you everywhere you went. The “go bag” contained spare batteries, controller unit, and small batteries for the control unit. I remember one day we were headed to Cary when Faye asked, “did you get your bag?” “No,” I had forgotten it. We had to turn around and go back to get it. Should something fail on the unit, you have about 15 – 30 minutes to replace it. Normal battery life was about 8 – 10 hours and I had four sets of batteries. On the plus side, I could not believe how much better the device made me feel. I could do things I was not able to do before the LVAD, like walk uphill without having to pause, and I even played golf wearing it. I am glad I consented to having it implanted. From May 22, 2013 until April 14, 2014 I pretty much lived my normal life, thankful that God had given me this miracle of sorts.

 

Show Time

 

Our grandson, Adam, was out of school for Easter break and came to spend the week with us. Faye had big plans of yard cleaning, mowing, putting out mulch, etc. We had spent most of the day working in the yard and decided to take a little break about 2:30 or so. We had no sooner got in the garage when my cellphone rang. It was Catherine, one of the transplant coordinators. “How are you doing?” “Doing fine,” I replied, “been working in the yard all day.” “So you’re feeling ok, no cold, fever, anything?” “No, I feel great.” Then she got to the point; “How quickly can you get here, we think we’ve got you a heart!” Quick showers, a change of clothes, a few phone calls and we were off to Baptist Hospital. We arrived at the hospital about 5:30 Monday evening April 14, 2014. I went directly to the CCU unit where the staff immediately went to work preparing me for surgery. Things move rather quickly the rest of the evening with normal surgery preparations, x-rays, etc. I was taken down to the “OR” about 11:00 pm where they briefly made some final checks, and let me have a brief moment with my family, then into the surgical suite. It was about 11:30 pm. I was told very little about the donor heart; it was out of state, about an hour flight from Winston-Salem, and that of a younger person (25 – 35 years of age). That’s all I will probably ever know about the donor. My prayers to the deceased family, and my gratitude to the donor for being willing to offer someone else the gift of life, despite their tragedy. My thanks to God for giving doctors the knowledge and skills to save lives in this way.

 

I woke up in the ICU, with the medical staff complimenting me on how quickly I came off the ventilator and began breathing on my own. I was in some pain, but nothing out of the ordinary after surgery. I was swollen, had tubes coming out of my chest. I just wanted to sleep, but there was a nurse or doctor doing something (and I didn’t care what at the time) to me. Time was again a blur during this period, and I kept telling myself it would be better in a few days, just hang in there. One interesting thing was the pain medication – morphine, I think. The bugs came back, crawling on the ceiling and paint splatters on the walls – and I enjoyed it! After all, you need some entertainment while lying in a hospital bed. I thought it was fascinating watching the little bugs crawl around. But I also learned something you should not do – tell the nurse about the bugs! They cut off my morphine; no more bugs to watch – bummer. After a couple of days I was transferred to the CCU unit and then out to a regular room a couple of days later. It just so happened it was the same room I was in when I had the LVAD surgery. I remembered several of the staff from before and they were great. Now it was just a matter of getting the “numbers” right. That means they had to adjust the dosages of the various medications that prevent rejection. It is somewhat trial and error for an individual, but it has to be right. Physically, I could have been released from the hospital sooner, but they had to get all just right with the medications. I was finally released on Thursday May 1 about 5:00 p.m. “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last (MLK)” Those words of Martin Luther King Jr. came to mind as I was getting into the car to come home.

 

Quarantine or not to quarantine

 

The heart transplant program at Baptist has a new medical director whose thinking is a little different from the former director and the current staff who worked under the former director. The program is in a period of transition. The new director basically said I could be out around people, but just not sick people, and limit touching and close contact. Wash your hands a lot and wear a mask when in doubt. The “old” thinking was to be confined for the first three months. The danger is infection, of course, since your immune system is basically non-existence. So, I’m trying to strike a balance between the two schools of thought. I am going out some, but I try to be very careful about being around crowds of people. We’ve been to a couple of restaurants when we were the only ones there because we went early. I have to go back to Baptist weekly right now (that will change after the first month), and what more germ infected place than a hospital. But for now, a biopsy of the heart muscle is the only way to make sure my body is not rejecting the heart, and so far there have been no signs of rejection.

 

My recovery and progress since the surgery has been pretty routine. I feel better than I’ve felt in a long, long time. I have to keep reminding myself that I am recovering from major surgery and I have to give my body time to heal. I’m trying to take it slow, but as I told Faye the other day, what I really would like to do would be go to my office and start working. This sitting around the house gets old in a hurry for someone who has worked most of their life. There is also some guilt; I hear of people who are sick or something and I would like to offer pastoral care. I’d like to be there in the pulpit on Sundays, proclaiming the good news of Christ, but I can’t right now. So, I’m putting my time in waiting for the months to pass. My goal is to return by the first Sunday in July. I will have to make some modifications, like not going to the front and shaking hands, etc. But I trust you’ll understand. All things considered I am overly blessed. I am thankful for the love and support of my family, and my church family. I am thankful for the prayers that were offered up on my behalf from literally around the world (I had a missionary praying for me from a foreign land). I felt those prayers as the hand of God has been upon me. By God’s grace I trust I will continue to do well and return to normal strength.

 

It has been an incredible journey so far. But that is exactly how I’ve looked at it – a journey. I began it not knowing where I’d end up, and I still don’t in many ways. But I’ve determined to put my hand in God’s hand. I trust Him to lead me safely along the way until journey’s end. In the words of Bill Gaither’s song: “I don’t regret a mile, I’ve traveled for the Lord; I don’t regret a time, I’ve trusted in His Word …” The miracle of a new heart really happened many years ago when I bowed before an altar and invited Christ into my life as my Lord and Savior. As I awoke on Easter Sunday morning in the ICU, Easter and resurrection took on a whole new meaning for me. For in many ways I had been raised from the dead and given a new heart.

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