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Health Beat: Healing hearts without a transplant

By Melanie Falcon, Anchor / Reporter, @Melanie_Falcon, MFalcon@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 10 2014 12:06:40 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 10 2014 04:49:35 PM CDT

More than a half-million people are living with advanced heart failure.

PHILADELPHIA -

More than a half-million people are living with advanced heart failure.

For those who can’t manage it with medication, a heart transplant is their only option. Now, doctors may have found an alternative for some patients.

A heart pump designed to keep patients alive until transplant could actually help heal the heart itself with no transplant needed.

Mornings spent together for Barbara and Walter Harsche are truly a gift. Three years ago, Walter was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and was told he needed a heart transplant.

"The thought of losing him was just horrible for me, really horrible," Barbara said.

To support him when his body was in shock from heart failure, Walter's doctor implanted a pump known as the LVAD — a left ventricular assist device.

"I was all set to go if the phone call came," Walter said.

But in the midst of waiting for a new heart, his own heart began to get stronger. So Walter enrolled in a first-of-its-kind trial at the University of Pennsylvania, testing the LVAD as a bridge to recovery — a way to heal the heart so it can beat once again on its own.

"The patient is walking around doing what they want to," said Dr. Eduardo Rame, director of mechanical circulatory support, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania.

Patients' enlarged hearts begin to shrink on the device and slowly begin to heal.

Studies in Europe show most patients are free from heart failure for more than two years after explant.

"We’re not talking about life with a heart on crutches. We're talking about a life lived well," Rame said.

Walter was on the device seven months. Now, two years later, his heart, like his marriage, is going strong.

Rame said the LVAD is used in most patients for between six and nine months to strengthen the heart, and then patients are slowly weaned off the device until explant.

Using the LVAD as a bridge to recovery is for the 50 percent of heart failure patients whose heart failure is not related to a heart attack or severe coronary artery disease.

DOWNLOAD and VIEW research summary and an in-depth interview with the doctor