COLORADO SPRINGS – Following a massive heart attack in 2016, his fourth since 2001, the next step in Kirk Shiflett’s journey – when medication could no longer keep his heart pumping efficiently -was an evaluation for a heart transplant.
Kirk was initially put on the heart transplant list in August of 2017.
Dr. Natasha Altman, a cardiologist with UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora who specializes in advanced heart failure, was in charge of Kirk’s care.
Dr. Altman explains, “Part of the evaluation process, for a heart transplant is also to consider a mechanical assist device that we call an LVAD. It’s a heart pump that is placed surgically into the very tip of the left ventricle and pumps blood from the ventricle to the rest of the body when the heart itself is not able to pump adequately.”
Kirk clearly remember when Dr. Altman gave him the news. “I was in Dr. Altman’s office and she broke the news to me, ‘you need an LVAD.’ I almost broke down, because I knew what that entailed. I knew I would have a mechanical device attached to my body and I didn’t know how long it would be attached to my body. Also once you get on that device you’re off the transplant list for the first three months. It depends on how healthy you get after that surgery if you’re going to be placed back on the heart transplant list.”
As bleak as having a pump surgically implanted sounded to Kirk, Dr. Altman says her team felt there was no other option. “We didn’t think he was going to be able to get to transplant without an LVAD. He ended up getting it to save his life, and get him stronger again and keep him going until we found a suitable donor organ for him.”
Kirk also understood it was a step he needed to take. “We came up here as quick as we could. I was admitted to the hospital and in January (2018) and they placed the LVAD.”
The adjustment to life with a battery-powered pump in his chest was a challenge for Kirk and his fiancée, Rose. “It was a difficult adjustment with regards to having a mechanical device,” says Kirk. “The driveline went in through my stomach and to the pump in my heart. Rose had to change the driveline dressing all the time. It was powered by batteries, so I always had to have spare batteries with me. It had a computer with it and I had a spare computer I had to carry with me as well, so anywhere we traveled I had an LVAD backpack with me.”
Many heart patients end up living the rest of their lives on an LVAD for different reasons. Dr. Altman says, “Once the LVAD is implanted, the majority of people have a significant improvement in the quality of life. Most people are able to exercise again, and lead pretty normal lives. We usually tell people the only things they can’t do is immerse themselves in water, because there is electronic equipment that is attached to them from the outside to the inside. Other than that people are able to do pretty much anything they want.”
After Kirk received his LVAD, his quality of life improved greatly. Dr. Altman recalls, “He got the point where he was able to exercise, he had regained his functionality, and at that point he was ready for transplant.”
Being on a vital organ transplant waiting list means one thing for sure: not knowing when or if the needed organ will ever become available.
Going on the LVAD is a part of Kirk’s heart journey that he’s now very thankful for. “If it wasn’t for the LVAD I don’t think I would be alive today, because medication didn’t work anymore.”
In my next story on Kirk, the waiting for a new heart finally comes to an end, and his new heart is just one part of the many ways his life has been changed today.
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