Technology extends Alto man’s life from months to years

Published: Thursday, November 14, 2019

Written by: The Northeast Georgian

Patients with advanced heart failure now have an option for treatment other than heart transplant, thanks to a technology the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved in 2017 known as HeartMate 3 Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD), a battery-operated, mechanical pump that helps pump blood to the rest of the body.

Donald Wade, 62, of Alto, had surgery Aug. 28 to have an LVAD implanted after he was diagnosed with advanced heart failure and was given three to six months to live. He said he is recovering from the surgery just fine and is looking forward to many more years of life. His wife, Susan Wade, said she hopes more people find out about this “life saving procedure.”

“I’m getting stronger every day and looking forward to getting out there and enjoying life again,” Donald Wade said.

Ugochukwu O. Egolum, advanced heart failure cardiologist at the Heart Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC) and medical director for the advanced heart failure and LVAD program, said the LVAD takes blood from the left ventricle of the heart, which is the main pumping chamber, and distributes it throughout the body. “LVAD pumps have been used since the 1960s, but the most recent is the HeartMate 3, which was approved in 2017,” he said. “It is the newest generation of these pumps and probably the best available at this point in time.”

Northeast Georgia Physicians Group (NGPG) Cardiothoracic Surgeon and LVAD Program Surgical Director Kyle Thompson said Donald Wade was the third patient out of four who have physically had an LVAD implanted at NGMC so far.

According to Beth Downs, NGMC marketing and public relations manager, the LVAD program is a collaboration between NGMC, NGPG and the Heart Center, all located in Gainesville.

“Left heart failure is an increasingly common disease,” Thompson said. “Patients undergo a rigorous selection process based on meeting certain criteria such as social aspects, financial aspects, health aspects and their ability to recover from open-heart surgery. Donald was one of the few that met all of these requirements that are necessary to be approved for and benefit from LVAD therapy.”

Some symptoms of heart failure include shortness of breath when sleeping or with activity, swelling or fluid build-up in the legs or belly, fatigue, confusion, poor appetite and weight gain, Egolum said.

“I could hardly walk 50 feet across the yard without stopping and having to take a breath and rest,” Donald Wade said about how he felt before having the surgery, adding he experienced a lot of pain in his stomach. “Even now, I can do more than I could before. The doctors said in three to six months I’ll be able to notice a big difference.”

Amy Cutshaw, director of the cardiology program at NGMC, said it took them a few years to get the hospital prepared to offer the procedure. Meanwhile, Thompson implanted approximately 12 LVAD implants at a partnering hospital.

“Very few facilities have the ability to use this technology,” Egolum said. “It’s a good thing we are able to provide this resource in Northeast Georgia. … It’s made a world of a difference. Now patients have another option. It’s a really good, new technology that’s making a difference for our patients.”

Nationwide, Egolum said, there are about six million people with heart failure, but only an estimated 25,000-50,000 may be candidates for advanced therapies. Normally, they would be considered for heart transplantation. However, Egolum said based on data since the 1980s, there are approximately 3,000 transplants a year in the United States, which is insufficient to meet the demand.

“Based on how sick he was, had we not done the pump, his probability of living another two years would have been 8%,” Egolum said. “The heart pump increased his chances for survival at two years to 83%. Those chances of survival are the same as having a transplant. It extended his life by several years.”

Donald Wade said he had never heard of LVAD prior to his diagnosis, but it became his only option after he was told he was not eligible for a heart transplant. LVADs are sometimes used as a “bridge to transplant” for people waiting for a heart transplant, but Susan Wade said other times, like in Donald Wade’s case, it is used as “destination therapy” or long-term.

“It’s a miracle, really,” Susan Wade said. “It’s a technology miracle we didn’t know was there. … We have six grandchildren ranging in ages from 2-13. Now he’s got a lot more life to live.”

She said in addition to meeting many requirements to be eligible for an LVAD, it also takes a lot of commitment, as the recovery and care requires a lot of family and caretaker support.

“Be committed to it,” Donald Wade said for anyone considering an LVAD. “It takes a little getting used to, but once you do I would recommend it. In my case, that was my only option. It was either this or three to six months.”

Thompson said one end of the LVAD was implanted on the very tip of the left ventricle of the heart and the other end was attached to the aorta – the body’s main artery. There’s also a driveline that comes out of the skin that connects to a controller, with two wires that go to two different batteries on the side of the body. Donald Wade said the batteries last about 17 hours and are charged at night. 

Donald Wade still has to take medicine to treat his heart failure, Egolum said, as well as blood thinners to prevent pump clots and will require close monitoring.

“The clinic is set up for this. Initially, we’ll see him weekly and then it’ll be spread out,” Egolum said. He added that NGMC offers a team approach to support patients after an LVAD implant, such as education for the family and 24/7, 365 days a year direct access to NGMC’s team in case of any issues.

“The staff at Northeast Georgia Medical Center is the best staff I have ever seen,” Donald Wade said. “They take super care of you. The nurse, the doctors come in every morning to see how you’re doing. They’re super good.”

How can The Heart Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center help?

The Heart Center of Northeast Georgia Medical Center is the state’s leader in cardiac care. Our physicians are recognized as some of the top cardiovascular physicians in the country.

We perform more than 9,000 cardiac procedures annually. Our board-certified cardiologists were trained at top institutions across the country and have vast experience that leads to high-quality care you can trust.

With several locations throughout northeast Georgia, The Heart Center is able to provide personal service with familiar faces near you.

To schedule an appointment, call 770-534-2020 or visit