About six months after Mayra Rodriguez was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in October 2005, she made another discovery, making eight cycles of aggressive chemotherapy worth it.
The 33-year-old New Jersey native was pregnant with her first child.
However, Rodriguez’s celebration was short-lived. After being warned by doctors delivering a baby could weaken her heart due to her therapy, she had both a son and heart failure.
“I was feeling very short of breath,” describes Rodriguez. “I was so weak I couldn’t even take care of my baby. I was given pills, but nothing seemed to work. I went to my cardiologist and he just said to give it some time for the medication to work. But I was feeling the same for over a week. I then told my husband I couldn’t deal with this anymore. I just felt something was not right. And thank goodness I decided to have it checked out again.”
Rodriguez’s suspicions were right. A month before she gave birth to her son Gabriel in September 2006, she found she was suffering from heart failure. It was during a visit to the hospital where she discovered a tool that would save her life.
“I was at the hospital one night and things just got really bad,” says Rodriguez. “I wasn’t awake for a week. I was told at the hospital I either had to get Heartmate or I wouldn’t survive the night. My heart was only working 5 percent. It was either getting the device or dying. I chose life.”
Rodriguez is one of thousands of Americans who had a heart pump, or LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device), implanted into the heart. The device is designed to help the left side of the heart pump blood for the body to survive. While it does not replace the heart, it’s considered to be an alternative for patients unable to find a donor or, in worst cases, live without a transplant.
According to Dr. Margarita Camacho, the Surgical Director of Cardiac Transplantation and Assist Devices at Barnabas Health Heart Centers who assisted Rodriguez, HeartMate II, the model particular Rodriguez was given, gave the new mother a second chance.
“Her heart was dead,” says Camacho. “It needed a device in order for her to stay alive. With artificial emergency heart devices, you cannot leave the hospital without them. So we either needed to put something she can go home with or a heart transplant. It can take weeks to months to get a heart transplant. The device Mayra has, which is the same one as Dick Cheney's, takes about three hours to implant it.”
Despite HeartMate II being a quicker option, the device has power lines that connect to batteries – and some may be weary of carrying the batteries wherever they go, all while making sure it’s fully changed. The batteries, while they used to run for four hours, now last between 10 to 12 hours.
Rodriguez, who wasn’t a candidate for a heart transplant because of her cancer diagnosis, has learned to handle carrying two batteries wherever she goes, as well as avoid it getting it wet. Those with an assist pump must take a sponge bath because water cannot seep into it. But she says so far few people know she’s even carrying it or wearing a vest.
“One time, we were at a party and my friend told me, are you still carrying that bag? I had to explain it to her,” says Rodriguez, laughing.
Of course there are risks. Some patients with the device have to go on blood thinners because of risks of developing a stroke, particularly if the pump stopped working.
But those who have benefitted from it say they are appreciating the opportunities it has given them.
Nearly five years since she first received the device, Rodriguez enjoys an active life, including going on bike rides with Gabriel.
Time will tell whether more doctors will opt for HeartMate II rather than just wait for a heart transplant, which can take years to receive. But some experts said awareness on the device is being raised beyond the medical community.
“There are about 200,000 people in the U.S. that could use a transplant. And we could never do more than 2, 400 a year,” says Camacho. “Despite all that we do, the donations for heart organs have not increased. This device is a wonderful answer to that problem.”
You can reach Stephanie Nolasco via Twitter: @SNolasco