They look like they’d fit into a laptop, but the 14-volt lithium-ion batteries Lewis Ball wears in a modified fishing vest are all that keep him alive.
“Unplug them, and my pump’s going to stop,” Ball said. “And in a very short time, I’m going to stop.“
The Left Ventricular Assist Device, or LVAD, draws blood from his left ventricle with a turbine pump spinning at 9,200 revolutions per minute, and sends it into the aorta.
Through a stethoscope one hears a low hum, like an orchestra’s string section.
“In my case, my aortic valve has been sewed shut, which means the pump is my total support,” Ball said. “I have to be on power 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The system can serve as a bridge to a heart transplant or heart recovery. But Ball is ineligible for a transplant. The system will be with him for the rest of his life.
The vest, made for him by a Missoula seamstress, has pockets for the two batteries and a computer controller that operates the pump. He carries a second set of batteries and emergency instructions with him wherever he goes.
When the device was implanted in Ball’s chest last December at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., the staff and volunteers gave him and his wife Frances hours of training and support.
Now he’s hoping to do the same for the other LVAD patients. But because of federal confidentiality laws, they will have to contact him.
“I understand there’s between five and nine other patients in this area,” he said, “but I don’t know what this area includes.”
Based on the model set by Mended Hearts, he wants to start a support group that focuses on the unique needs of LVAD patients and their families. According to the American Heart Association, almost 600 devices were implanted in 2010, with the numbers rising each year.
“I want to start this help group, because I don’t really need much help. It’s the caregivers I’m concerned about, because all the stress is on them,” Ball said. Acknowledging his wife’s role, he said, “The only thing I have to do is behave, because she could unplug the cord and I’m done.”
The group will either be a subset of the local Mended Hearts chapter, or freestanding, depending on the wishes of the members.
For Frances, life has returned mostly to normal, except that she can’t leave Ball alone overnight. Someone has to be with him if anything happens, and to help him dress the incision where the LVAD’s driveline enters his stomach.
“He’s got to have help,” Frances said. “Some of them can do their own dressing and whatnot, but he hasn’t been able to do that.”
Ball, who spent 20 years as a volunteer firefighter, also wants to share his knowledge about the unusual pump by training emergency responders to recognize and care for an LVAD patient.
“I’ve been given some privileges,” Ball said., along with a model heart from Missoula Rural Fire that he uses for training.
Using the model heart and a model pump, he conducts training sessions for anyone interested.
“They can really do a lot, and that’s one thing I want to do – show different fire departments and EMTs how to respond to this,” Ball said. “Because I don’t know if they are ever going to respond to me, but they may have to respond to somebody.”
Joanna Wilson is a journalism student at the University of Idaho and a Missoulian intern. She can be reached at 523-5251.