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Real-life Iron Man: Pump replaces heartbeat, enlivens 80-year-old

Posted on Jun. 19, 2013 ( comments)
Once a month, Jim Jackson gets a checkup at the Heart Failure Clinic at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital. Four years ago, Jackson became MultiCare's first left ventricular assist device (LVAD) recipient.

If you see a license plate that reads “IronMan1,” you might assume it belongs to a fervent movie or comic book fan. Instead, it belongs to Pierce County’s own real-life Iron Man, Jim Jackson.

Jackson, 80, shares a lot with the fictional Marvel superhero Tony Stark. A bit of a ladies’ man? Check. Cheeky sense of humor? Check. Life dependent on a battery-powered device implanted to keep his heart beating? Check.

Four years ago, Jackson became MultiCare Health System’s first left ventricular-assist device (LVAD) recipient. The LVAD is a technical marvel that essentially takes over the function of the left side of the heart.

Originally used as a stop-gap measure to keep people alive while they awaited transplant, LVADs are becoming “destination therapy” for some terminal patients who, like Jackson, would not qualify for a transplant because of age or other factors.

MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital was the first non-transplant hospital west of the Mississippi to be certified as a Center of Excellence for LVAD therapy.

'I was going downhill and I knew it'

LVAD 2Jackson was in heart failure with at most a few weeks to live when he was referred to Dr. Dennis Nichols in 2009. What Nichols offered wasn't just a chance to escape death but a chance at really living again.

“When Dr. Nichols explained it to me, I just said, ‘When can we do it?’” Jackson recalls. The surgeon told him to think about it and talk to his family before agreeing to the major surgery.

Jackson did talk to his children. 

“But to be honest, I didn't really give it a thought. I was going downhill and I knew it,” he says.

If it was just a shot at prolonging his life, it wouldn't have been worth it, Jackson says. But the LVAD held out the promise of something more. 

“It was quality of life,” Jackson says. “I said, ‘I just want to get back on the golf course.’”

That desire to embrace not just being alive but being active convinced Nichols he had the right patient to serve as the first LVAD recipient.

New life after being 'three-quarters dead'

LVAD 3Jackson’s odyssey started, fittingly, with a round of golf just over a decade ago in Gig Harbor. Walking uphill, he felt his chest get tight. He had an annual physical later that day and asked his doctor for a thorough cardiac evaluation. Testing determined he had four arteries that were more than 77 percent blocked. During bypass surgery, they discovered a fifth severely blocked artery.

His five-way bypass kept him on the links for seven years until he started to feel himself slowing down. His cardiologist told him he had two silent heart attacks and scheduled him for a mitral valve replacement. After that surgery, he simply began slipping away with no energy, difficulty breathing and no interest in prolonging what had become an agonizing existence.

LVAD 5The cardiologist he was seeing had heard about Dr. Nichols protocol and referred Jackson to see him.

“He walked in with a walker and an IV pole, three-quarters dead,” says MultiCare VAD coordinator Kevin Guffey.

“Ever since the surgery he’s lived to chase women and play golf,” Guffey teases.

The two-year survival rate for patients in heart failure who receive an LVAD is 68-70 percent, compared with just 8 percent for those receiving traditional medical treatment, says Nichols. That’s approaching the survival rate of heart transplant recipients.

But survival rates aren't the aspect of the LVAD that most excites Dr. Nichols.

“It’s not necessarily about prolonging life, though it does," Dr. Nichols said. "It’s about the quality of life.”

He felt better almost immediately.

LVAD 4Most patients, after recovering from the 10-12 hour surgery to implant the LVAD, report that they feel better than they have in years. Jackson said that except for the pain from the incision, he felt better almost immediately after his surgery.

Once the LVAD is implanted, the heart failure is essentially gone, Nichols explains. Patients have the freedom to do the things they enjoy, which for Jackson means golfing and flirting with women.

“I am a tease,” the four-times married Jackson insists. “I’ve never had a husband get mad at me.”

Jackson is doing so well, he recently had hip replacement surgery, coming through it as well as someone with a perfectly healthy heart.

LVAD 6The LVAD plugs in to a power source at night, but patients are dependent upon batteries during the day. That’s one aspect that Jackson has tested more than once, nearly running out of charged batteries when he was too far from home to retrieve them. Those episodes nearly gave Dr. Nichols heart failure himself. 

“If his battery runs out, he dies,” Nichols says.

For his part, Jackson says he’s still not afraid to die, though he promises to be more mindful of his battery status.

“I’ve had a fulfilling life,” he says. “I’ve been very lucky and I know it.”

VIDEO: Dr. Dennis Nichols explains ventricular-assist devices

VIDEO: Dr. Dennis Nichols speaks at TEDxTacoma

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