Three years ago, Provo resident Reid Clark was "fading away" from congestive heart failure. Wednesday, a healthy, beaming Clark handed out cake to celebrate a medical milestone: He is the first Utahn and the third person in the world to live 1,000 days on the HeartMate left ventricular assist device.
The LVAD, as it's called, takes over the pumping function on the heart's left ventricle. Implanted in the abdomen and connected to the heart, it runs on a portable external battery carried in a fanny pack. With it, Clark, who is 73 and thus was too old for a heart transplant, enjoys an exceedingly active lifestyle.
"The more you wear (LVAD), the better you like it," said Clark, who added he's ready to tackle "whatever comes up. I know now there are no barriers."
Much of his almost three years with the device has been about knocking down barriers, in fact. Clark, who has piloted single-engine planes, successfully challenged the theory that he couldn't fly commercially, and now a number of people with the device routinely fly for business and pleasure. With wife Connie he's built rock walls, operates a pizza parlor and returned to the beloved skiing he thought heart failure had curtailed.
He was also "one of the first, if not the first" of the LVAD patients to begin driving again, according to Karl Nelson, clinical director of the Utah Artificial Heart Program at LDS Hospital. He has worked full-time nearly the entire time he's had the device. Program staff credit Clark, a Novell founder, with changing how they manage outpatients who have LVAD, Nelson added. They're less restrictive.
"After we placed it (in Clark), it was a matter of kind of getting out of the way," said Dr. Brad Rasmusson, medical director of the program.
The audience included two special cheerleaders: Larry Hansen, 47, of Salt Lake City, who used an LVAD as a bridge for nearly a year until he received a heart transplant last week; and Jo Turpin, whose husband, Joe Turpin, was receiving a new heart even as the hospital staff celebrated Clark's milestone. Joe wouldn't have lived long enough to be transplanted, she said, without LVAD.
LDS Hospital is one of the major LVAD implantation sites. It currently has 18 patients who use LVAD.
The surgeon who implanted Clark's device, Dr. James Long, program director of the artificial heart program, missed the party because he was implanting Turpin's new heart.
Though the LVAD pump is becoming a "gold-standard" treatment for congestive heart failure, given its phenomenal success in clinical trial and early experiences with it, life with a pump isn't all smooth sailing.
When Clark's LVAD had been in for about 27 months, he got a call at 4 a.m. to tell him he was running out of electricity and LifeFlight would bring him to the hospital. Connie Clark did the pumping herself on that ride from Provo to Salt Lake City.
But LVAD just keeps getting better, Clark and Hansen agree. Hansen believes that, because of rejection potential with transplants, "It's going to be better than having a transplant," he said.