VAD implant as ‘destination therapy’ saves one man’s life
By Cheryl Reid-Simons
As Michael Fournier dropped his youngest child off at Central Washington University to start her freshman year of college last fall, he felt even more emotional than most parents in the same circumstance.
“I didn’t know if this was the last time I was going to see her,” he recalls. “That’s a scary thought.”
At just 47 years old, Fournier was in stage 4 heart failure and quickly running out of options to stay alive.
“I wasn’t eligible for a heart transplant and I wasn’t going to make it much longer,” he says.
Not so long ago, he would have been faced with no real chance of long-term survival. But today, he’s not just alive but also enjoying life again thanks to a ventricular assist device, or VAD, surgically implanted at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital.
Originally used as a “bridge to transplant” or “bridge to recovery” to keep patients alive long enough to receive heart transplants or recover heart function, Pulse Heart Institute offers VAD implants as “destination therapy” for patients like Fournier who will live with the VAD for the rest of their lives.
Started at Tacoma General several years ago, Pulse Heart Institute’s program was the first non-transplant center west of the Mississippi to offer destination VAD therapy.
The VAD is a mechanical pump that takes over the function of the left side of the heart. VAD patients like Fournier rely on an external power source to stay alive. It requires some lifestyle changes, including a willingness to carry battery packs anytime they unplug from the wall.
Patients can shower with specially designed shower packs, but baths and anything that requires submersion are no longer possible.
Those restrictions don’t seem to bother Fournier.
“The quality of life is there again,” her says. “Compared to where I was, there hasn’t been any downsides.”
‘I was able to breathe again’
Fournier’s heart journey probably goes back 20 years, when he successfully fought non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with chemotherapy and radiation. He believes that life-saving course of treatment may have eventually led to his heart failure.
And as a cancer survivor, he’s also not a good candidate for organ transplant, explains Kevin Guffey, RN, a VAD coordinator at Tacoma General.
“With a transplant we have to weaken the immune system so patients don’t reject the organ,” Guffey says. “That will make cancer flare up.”
Fournier underwent a quadruple bypass about seven years ago and last year thought he needed a stent because he was having trouble again. Doctors agreed and placed a stent, “but something still didn’t seem right,” he says.
His cardiologist and primary care doctor were dubious that his heart was failing, simply because of his relative youth.
“But I said, ‘I’ve already had a quadruple bypass. We’ve already passed too young,’” Fournier says.
So they sent him to the Heart Failure Clinic at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup. After running some tests, they determined his heart was only pumping at 23 percent of normal efficiency and referred him to the VAD program at Tacoma General.
Bloated and unable to even sleep peacefully, Fournier was rapidly declining. By the end of October, his VAD was placed during open heart surgery.
“I knew instantaneously it was working,” he says. “I was able to breathe again.”
Getting his life back
After two-and-a-half weeks in the hospital and rehab, Fournier returned home and is regaining his life.
“I’m walking, driving and getting muscle back,” he says. “I even joined a gym and I’m getting more muscles back than I had before.”
The biggest lifestyle change for him was the restriction on getting wet.
“My family, we were big whitewater rafters,” Fournier says. “That’s over for me now along with no more swimming.”
But the tradeoff is worth it.
“I don’t think I would have seen Christmas last year without it,” he says.
And Fournier’s also getting used to toting around batteries everywhere he goes.
“It definitely gets looks from people when you’re out,” he says. “I don’t try to hide it. It is what it is. My wife says I should have a button made up that says ‘Go ahead ask, it’s OK.’”
Guffey says working with VAD patients like Fournier is rewarding because of the long-term relationships that are formed.
“I like being able to follow patients from the beginning all the way through,” Guffey says. “I see how sick they are when they arrive, see their struggles and watch them go through the process and then I get to watch them live life again. It’s really cool that they get to see grandchildren born, see kids get married, watch their kids go through triumphs and hardships they wouldn’t have been there for (without VAD).”
For Fournier that includes watching his oldest son graduate from Seattle University School of Law this spring as well as seeing his youngest graduate from Central a few years from now and everything else his three kids accomplish over the next few years.
After surviving cancer and getting a new life from a high-tech heart implant, Fournier says he isn’t too worried about the future.
“If I can get several more years, by then, who knows what we’ll have?” he says.