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Medical Procedure at UVA Giving Patients a Change of Heart - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Medical Procedure at UVA Giving Patients a Change of Heart

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A special medical procedure at the University of Virginia is changing the way doctors help patients with failing hearts.  The hospital is treating patients with a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD).

Medical technology is advancing quickly.  Just a decade ago, the survival rate for patients with failing hearts depended almost entirely on the availability of a donor.  Now a LVAD, which doctors call a "bridge to transplant," is changing the way we think of treatment.

It was October 2009, and both ventricles in Lonnie Ison's heart, which pump blood to the body, were failing.  "I was ready to die…I was just tired of living like that," he said. 

Ison needed a heart transplant to survive, but had no donor.  That's when doctors suggested installing a LVAD.  "The first time they offered it I said, 'I don't want it,'" he said.  "And then I thought, maybe I do."

Dr. James Bergin, a UVA heart failure specialist, explains, "So the blood flows from the heart, through this and then back into the aorta."

Different from a pacemaker, the battery-powered LVAD circulates blood throughout the body, changing the way doctors approach patients with heart failure.

"You're talking about a group of people who probably have about a 90 percent mortality rate at about a year, and we have switched that around to about an 80 percent or 90 percent survival rate," Bergin said.

Doctors explain that if you put your hand on the wrist or neck of a patient using a LVAD, you don't feel any pulse. 

Ison said, "They look at you, and they're like…'uh, what's the matter with you?' Well, I'm being run by a pump."

Ison's LVAD saved his life while waiting for a transplant, and as technology improves, doctors see exciting possibilities.

"We won't need to do all the transplants, we won't have the long transplant list, because we'll have a device similar to this that you can put in and just maintain long term," said Dr. Bergin.

Because LVADs require an external power source, complications do occur, including a risk of stroke and infection.  But as these devices get smaller and more efficient, doctors say it is likely they could prevent the need for transplant in some patients with heart failure.

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