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Living without a pulse | News

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Living without a pulse

It's one of those things considered critical to life: a pulse. However, at least 14 people in Central Georgia don't have one.

They're not zombies, and this isn't a story about the night of the living dead.

It's a true story about technology that's pumping life into patients faced with few options.

On a typical day in Nancy Gonzalez's Bloomfield kitchen, she sliced vegetables and prepared fresh fish.

She said, "I'm very strict about what I eat."

The 66-year-old was making a low salt, low fat dinner for her and her husband. She said, "I figure if he's out working, I could cook."

The food on her plate has always been important. So has exercise and living right.

Gonzalez said, "I never smoke, never drank. That's why getting sick, really sick, in her late 50's threw her for a loop.

She said, "I always question, what did I do wrong, but I can't figure that out."

Thirty-seven-year-old Rodney Jackson pondered the same thought. He was 29-years-old, a Pulaski County sheriff's deputy, when illness wrecked his plans.

Jackson said, "I enjoyed what I was doing, so it was devastating to have to leave."

A powerful strand of a virus weakened Jackson's heart. He said, "I was short of breath, no energy."

The drugs from breast cancer treatments caused Gonzalez's case of heart failure.

She said, "I was retaining water, pains in the stomach and couldn't eat."

Both patients dealt with that diagnosis and treated it with medications for years.

Those stopped working by the time Dr. Erskine James entered the picture.

The cardiologist shared the odds for people in the final stages of heart failure.

James said, "If I had 100 of them, 75 of them wouldn't be here at one year, unless we get them a heart transplant or ventricular assist pump."

He says a lot of people die waiting on the transplant list.

The Left Ventricular Assist Device, known as an LVAD, offered a more appealing option.

James said to them, "This is a shot at giving you quality of life back."

He described the LVAD as a "fuel pump for the heart." Once surgically installed in a person's chest cavity, via open heart surgery, it works a lot like a car battery.

Electricity powers the pump, and keeps blood flowing to the heart. Portable, wearable batteries keep patients alive during the day.

Jackson said, "I hook to the wall at night", meaning he plugs the device inside his chest into an electric socket in the wall.

Dr. James explained the responsibility required and the risks. He said, "I'm not a used car salesman. They don't have to make this decision in my office."

Nationally, 25 percent of LVAD patients die within a year of receiving the pump.

Stroke from blood clots and infection around the open wound, where the power supply enters the body, happen in up to 40-percent of patients.

James said, "The mortality rate the first couple of days is higher than if you hadn't had the pump, but at that the end of that year, again more people are alive than dead, that got this pump. In addition, they're able to do activity they weren't able to do before."

And there's that other part. James said, "That freaks out a lot of people, when I tell them they will have no pulse."

When a normal heart beats, it squeezes, producing a pulse.

The LVAD flows constantly, meaning there is no squeezing motion to produce a pulse.

Gonzalez said, "It's shocking when they don't know."

Gonzalez wears a bracelet that identifies her as an LVAD patient. There are also signs next to her bedside power supplies.

They are there, so if she's unconscious, paramedics won't mistake her for dead.

It's a new technology to Central Georgia, offered for the first time outside Atlanta, two years ago.

James said, "We want to be very aggressive in making sure paramedics know how to take care of patients with this pump."

Education programs are ongoing.

That's important Jackson says. He expects more people to find LVAD success.

Jackson said, "It's like a breath of fresh air. I want to get out there and go."

He's able to play with his five children, travel a bit, although he is always weighed down by the required baggage of the LVAD.

Gonzalez said the equipment gets heavy.

In a few years, doctors hope for a smaller pump, one that's entirely internal.

In the meantime, Gonzalez says she's grateful for the technology.

Jackson agreed. He said, "I have plenty of time to realize what's important in life"

Jackson and Gonzalez have each been living with their LVADs for more than a year, with no complications.

The Medical Center of Central Georgia is the only hospital in the state that offers the device outside of Atlanta.

Dr. James says they've placed LVADs in 16 patients. Two died from surgical complications. Others died from complications related to the pump.


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