When 100 heart failure survivors each surpassed a milestone of living for a decade — in some cases even longer — with the HeartMate II™ left ventricular assist device (LVAD), their collective millennium of longer, fuller lives was cause for celebration.
As LVADs continue to help hearts do the job they can't do on their own — pump blood, beat after beat — improvements in LVAD life expectancy is the reason there are so many unique stories yearning to be told.
There's Mayra, who underwent LVAD surgery to receive her HeartMate II in 2008 after chemotherapy weakened her heart.
There's Laura, who got her LVAD in 2007 after pregnancy threatened her heart health.
And Tracey, who received her LVAD in 2012 and was able to make it to her 40th birthday party.
Their hearts — and many others' — are still beating thanks to a mechanical pump.
A decade ago, that might have seemed impossible. LVAD life expectancy wasn't what it is today, and use of the HeartMate II was only expected to last a few short months — a couple of years, at most. Created solely as a bridge-to-transplant option, it just needed to last long enough to keep people alive while they awaited a heart transplant.
Designed for Today, Built for Tomorrow
In 2016, Chris Rice wasn't feeling like himself. He was weak and often sick. He couldn't even walk across a room without difficulty. At one point, his wife found him on his hands and knees, gasping for air. He was diagnosed with heart failure and given a HeartMate II, which kept his heart beating for six months, as a bridge to a heart transplant. The LVAD turned Chris' life around so much that within another six months, he was healthy enough to earn a spot on Duke University Medical Center's transplant list.
Rice eventually got his new heart. But many others don't. Only about 2 percent of the 250,000 people with heart failure who need a heart transplant get one, and at any given time, the Mayo Clinic estimates, there are about 3,000 people in the U.S. waiting for heart transplants. Unfortunately, there aren't enough hearts for every person in need: The median wait time for a heart transplant, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is just shy of a year. Some people don't live long enough while waiting for a transplant, and some are too sick to make it on the transplant list at all. They need a solution that's built to last.
The HeartMate II can be their saving grace.
When the technology was first designed in 1967, it was powered by a large, external machine, and it was only designed to work for a few hours. Even in the 1990s, researchers considered the device an interim option. But evidence hinted that the LVAD could have a longer shelf life. In 1997, for example, the Annals of Surgery called LVAD surgery a "prelude to destination therapy."
But LVADs weren't just a prelude. In 2010, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved HeartMate II for destination therapy, making it the first such device authorized to provide permanent support for heart failure patients.
A Destination for Years to Come
More than a decade after the device was introduced, more than 26,000 people have received the HeartMate II. The first 100 recipients are now celebrating more than 10 years of active, normal life with the pump. And their devices don't show any signs of stopping.
Thanks to the device's endurance, the HeartMate series has become a destination therapy, not just a bridge-to-transplant therapy. That distinction has made the LVAD available to more people than just those awaiting a transplant — it can help those who are ineligible to receive a donor heart resume their daily lives.
The next generation of the device — the HeartMate 3™ LVAD — was approved in 2018 by the FDA for destination therapy (long-term support). At about half the size of the HeartMate II, the HeartMate 3 offers the same long-lasting hardiness, but it's enhanced by a more advanced system.
For Tyrone Morris, who lives with congestive heart failure and hopes to one day receive a new heart, the HeartMate 3 serves an important purpose: It lets him live his daily life free of heart failure symptoms. LVAD in place and spirits high, he's gotten back to doing what he loves — bowling and running a barbecue restaurant in Milwaukee, Wis.
"I want a heart transplant, but if I had to live my life with the pump, I'd still be happy," he said. "I'd still do what I'm doing."