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MedWatch: Lifesaving Heart Pump

Many heart problems can stem from lifestyle, but plenty of children are born with bad hearts or can develop serious issues through illness.

Sometimes transplant is the only option but, thanks to new technology, there is something else patients and doctors can turn to.

Learn more about it in this week’s MedWatch report.

"Everybody jokes I have a Grinch’s heart. I have a heart that’s two sizes too big."

Kelly Sanchez can laugh about his heart problems now, but his enlarged heart almost killed him.

He learned about it after passing out during a softball game.

"The amount of blood being pumped from my heart was nine percent, where someone my age was supposed to be in the 40-50 percent range, I was at nine percent," explains Kelly.

Right now, a machine is keeping him alive.

"The name of the device is left ventricular assist device, or LVAD. That’s to assist the heart to pump the blood around. These pumps provide blood flow continuously, like if you were to open a faucet and the water runs continuously," says Dr. Dino Recchia, chief of cardiology at Munson Medical Center.

That can create some interesting looks if someone is trying to hear his heart.

"I have no pulse. I have no blood pressure. All the signs you could do to somebody to feel their heart beat I don’t have," explains Kelly.

Kelly could use the LVAD for the rest of his life, but, like many patients, is choosing to use this as a bridge to transplant.

"It’s bittersweet is one way to put it. It’s good to know I have a chance. The other hand, I know when I get listed I’m waiting for someone to die, so that’s part’s the problem," says Kelly.

Once Kelly loses a few more pounds, he will be eligible for the transplant list. But he’s still prepared to wait at least another year.

"There are about 25,000 patients in the U.S. today that would benefit from a heart transplant, but there’s only about 2,500 or about 1/10 of donor hearts," says Dr. Recchia.

Only three hospitals in Michigan implant the LVAD.

Kelly had his surgery August 1 at Spectrum in Grand Rapids.

There’s plenty of post-op check-ups and maintenance.

He started making weekly trips from Thompsonville to Grand Rapids.

"We’d leave at 10 in the morning, 11 in the morning and not be home until 7 or 8 o’ clock at night," says Kelly.

But now that he’s stable, he participated in the Shared Care Program with the heart failure clinic at Munson Medical Center.

"It’s a relationship we’ve built over the years. We have expertise that we’ve gained here to allow us to care for them here, even if they have to be hospitalized. If Kelly got pneumonia and needed to be in the hospital, we could take care of him here," explains Dr. Recchia.

A welcome partnership for Kelly and for the dozens of patients like him. Now he’s just trying to get in the best shape he can so he’s ready if and when a heart is available.

"I turned 50 in April and I have a 24-year-old son and he tells me, ‘well, you have a lot more things to do.’ So my goal is to try and get the new heart and live that way. I’ve become accustomed to this, but I’d just as soon not have it on anymore," says Kelly.