LVAD Patient Stories

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LVAD patient Furman Dillard standing in front of fire trucks
Furman Dillard pays it forward by training firefighters and first responders how to relate to LVAD patients

Over the past decade or so, LVADs have proved to be a viable alternative to heart transplants. The device technology has continued to improve over the past 15 years: pumps are smaller and more durable and the batteries last longer. A new LVAD device comes into the market with an FDA trial every two to four years. Here are the stories of three LVAD patients.

Furman Dillard

Furman’s heart issues began in 2000 when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. His doctor recommended he be seen at the Frankel Cardiovascular Center, where it was determined he needed a defibrillator due to an irregular heartbeat. Then, in 2010, Furman suffered a series of strokes and, ultimately, organ failure. His only option was a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which was implanted by Dr. Francis Pagani in 2012. Since the surgery, Furman is walking, working out, cooking and feeling fortunate to be alive.

A firm believer in paying it forward, he’s doing just that by supporting and educating new LVAD patients at U-M — all out of the goodness of his heart. He’s also training first responders and firefighters throughout the area, who he says need to understand the unique requirements of an LVAD patient in an emergency medical situation. During his training sessions, Furman demonstrates how an LVAD works and how to treat a person who is equipped with an LVAD in case of an emergency.

Furman credits the LVAD coordinator at U-M with teaching him about his own LVAD, including what to expect during travel and how to charge the batteries and care for the hardware. And he, in turn, is committed to helping others learn.

“Dr. Pagani and his team knew what they were doing. I was confident I would get better with their care. Now, I feel fortunate to be able to help other LVAD patients,” Furman says. And those patients are fortunate to have this dedicated man looking out for them. Read more of Furman Dillard's story on the CVC Heartbeat blog.

David Pierce

Judy and David Pierce, the longest living Heartmate II LVAD recipient, and granddaughters
Judy and David Pierce and granddaughters

David Pierce has the distinguished recognition of being the longest living HeartMate II LVAD patient in the U.S. David received his first LVAD on May 26, 2004, at the age of 52. Today, he is living a happy, healthy life — and spending precious time with his family.

David’s heart issues began when with a heart attack at age 41. Eleven years later, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. “I couldn’t walk more than 15 feet without stopping,” he says.  Today, however, David is a “new man,” and credits Francis D. Pagani, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiac surgeon and director of the U-M Center for Circulatory Support, who implanted his LVAD 10 years ago.

David’s protocol has become a family affair, with his thee sons learning as much as their parents about how to deal with any potential LVAD issues. Even David’s four young granddaughters are part of the program, retrieving new batteries for grandpa’s equipment when needed.

David’s wife, Judy, clearly remembers the morning of surgery 10 years ago, saying, “David went in with cold feet and came out with warm feet and a new outlook on life,” she says. Read more of David Pierce's story on the CVC Heartbeat blog.

Jerome Wilson

Jerome Wilson and Dr. Todd Koelling
Jerome Wilson and his cardiologist Dr. Todd Koelling

Jerome Wilson has been an athlete all his life. His heart failure journey began 20 years ago when he found himself unable to walk up a flight of stairs without feeling tired. In early 2013 Jerome’s condition had deteriorated to the point where a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) might be his best option for improving not only his quality of life, but also his chances for survival.

“The only thing wrong with me is my heart — everything else is great. When it came time to talk about getting an LVAD, I knew vaguely what it was, but not to the degree I was about to learn."

In May of 2013, Franics Pagani, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiac surgeon and director of the Center for Circulatory Support, implanted Jerome’s LVAD, and Jerome describes how his athlete's competitive instincts served him well in his recovery: "After the surgery, they had me on my feet as soon as I woke up. When I found out that the shortest amount of time for someone to stay in the hospital after having an LVAD put in was 10 days, I said I was going to do it in nine days. I did it in 13 days.

Before I could leave the hospital, my wife and I had to understand each alarm and what to do if the alarm went off. We learned how to read the battery life screen and to know if the batteries were fully charged or not. I'm healthy enough now to take showers. There's a special bag to put my device/controller in. And I can change my own batteries."

Jerome admits to an adjustment period with his LVAD: "With the LVAD, my lifestyle has changed. I could see how someone could be depressed about this. I'm carrying this object around all the time — it's with me everywhere I go. I can't just set it down and walk away. I take everything in stride, though."

Jerome's positive attitude has allowed him to recover quickly and move forward. He says, "My recovery was pretty fast because I’m in really good shape. I've been with a physical trainer since I was diagnosed at 42, and I still train with him. I’m able to stack firewood, go banking and go to the post office. My wife lets me be as active as I can be, but she also makes sure I'm not doing something I shouldn't do. I feel like I've had the best care any person could have. I feel blessed that I am still here. If I hadn't had the LVAD put in when I did, there's a chance I wouldn't be here today.” Read more of Jerome Wilson's story on the CVC Heartbeat blog.

LaVishia McDonald

Like many women her age who are trying to stay fit, LaVishia McDonald walks two to three miles every other day. Unlike most people, though, LaVishia McDonald is waiting for a heart transplant. 

LaVishia realized something was wrong after giving birth to her son: she had difficulty breathing and eating, experienced swelling in her legs, even forgot her children's names. Her doctor didn't know what was wrong but suspected it had to do with her heart and sent her to the University of Michigan for diagnosis.

When her University of Michigan heart specialist saw her he knew instantly something was wrong with her and told her she needed a heart transplant. "When I heard she needed heart surgery, I couldn't think of anything except my kids," says LaVishia. "I said, I don't care what you have to do, I need to get better and I need to get back to my kids." Heart surgeons implanted a left ventricle assist device (LVAD) into LaVishia's chest to help her heart pump while waiting for a heart to become available.

Most people waiting for transplant surgery--their life is on hold--you're forced to sit back and just wait--but not me. My doctor told me to go live, so that's what I do every day, and nothing stops me."

Patient Resources

Heart Failure Information Guide

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To be evaluated at the Michigan Medicine VAD Program, call 888-287-1082 or visit our Make a Cardiovascular Appointment page, where you may fill out a Patient Appointment Request Form and view other details about making an appointment.