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Ventricular Assist Device (VAD)

A ventricular assist device, or VAD, is a mechanical pump used to support heart function and blood flow in people with weak or failing hearts. The device is implanted in the chest and pumps blood from the lower chambers of the heart to the rest of the body. A VAD can be used to temporarily help your heart or as permanent support. By relieving the heart's workload, a VAD can prolong life and relieve symptoms such as lack of energy and breathlessness. Patients may be able to exercise and return to work. In some patients, the VAD actually allows the heart to recover. These patients may eventually be able to have the VAD removed and avoid a heart transplant.

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There are several different types of VADs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and used by UCSF. The most common type, known as an LVAD, supports the left ventricle, or pumping chamber, of the heart. But there are also devices that support the right ventricle (RVADs) and biventricular assist devices (BiVADS), which support both chambers. Our team will determine which is the best option for your particular case.

A VAD may be used to support your heart:

  • During or after surgery, until your heart recovers.
  • While you're waiting for a heart transplant.
  • If you're not eligible for a heart transplant because of age or other medical conditions.

All VADs consist of several parts. A small tube is connected to the heart and carries blood to the pump, which may be external or implanted in either the abdomen or chest. Another tube carries blood from the pump back to your aorta, the major blood vessel, which distributes blood to the arteries throughout your body. There is also a control system that is worn externally and a power source, consisting of batteries that are worn either around the waist or over the shoulder. The VAD's external parts are connected to the internal parts via a tube through the side of your abdomen.

Until recently VADs were too big to fit into many people's chests, especially women and children. But thanks to new smaller, more reliable devices, VADs are now an option for most people who need them.

Evaluation

Our team will evaluate your case to determine if you might benefit from a VAD.

During the evaluation we will discuss the various types of VADs available and which may be the best choice for you. You will have the chance to ask any questions you have about the device and procedure.

Your doctor may recommend a VAD if:

  • You're waiting for a heart transplant. The VAD will be implanted temporarily and you can return home while you wait for a donor heart to become available. When you receive your new heart, the VAD will be removed. This temporary use of a VAD is called "bridge therapy."

    UCSF has begun using a newly approved device, the HeartWare Ventricular Assist System, which is smaller and lighter that conventional LVADs. It is compact enough to implant in the chest, next to the heart, rather than in the abdomen, and it can be used in smaller patients. The HeartWare VAD also has a mechanical system that is more durable and less prone to complications than existing VADs. Unlike conventional VADS that pump in the same way as your heart, the HeartWare device allows a continuous stream of blood to flow through your heart, so you do not have a normal pulse, even though your body is getting the blood it needs.

  • HeartMateII
  • You're not a good candidate for a heart transplant. A VAD can be a long-term solution to help your heart work better when medication isn't helping but you are not eligible for a transplant. In this case, the VAD will be permanently implanted, a treatment known as "destination therapy." It can significantly improve your quality of life. Currently only the larger VADs are approved for destination therapy, but clinical studies are underway exploring the use of the smaller HeartWare VAD for long-term treatment.



  • Your heart's function can become normal again. If you are recovering from heart surgery, a heart attack or other illness that has temporarily weakened your heart, a VAD can give your heart a rest until it's healthy enough to pump blood on its own. In this case, you may only need the VAD a few weeks or months. Once you are better, it will be removed.

VADs do come with risks, including the risks associated with any major surgery, as well as the risk of stroke, bleeding or infection at the incision or in the heart. There is also an ongoing risk of infection at the wound site where tubing connects the internal pump to the external power source.

Procedure

Before getting a VAD, you will undergo tests to assess your heart function and ensure you're healthy enough to undergo surgery. These may include: a chest x-ray, an echocardiogram, an electrocardiogram (EKG), blood tests or cardiac catheterization.

Implanting the VAD requires open-heart surgery under general anesthesia. You will be asleep for the procedure and will not feel anything. The surgery takes about four to six hours. Afterward, you will be transferred to the intensive care unit for recovery. You will be on a respirator, or breathing machine, until you are awake and able to breathe on your own.

During your hospital stay we will instruct you and a family member or friend you've chosen as your caregiver on the device, including how to maintain and protect it and what to do in case of emergency. By the time you leave the hospital, you and your caregiver will be experts on your VAD.

We will communicate with your primary care doctor and emergency services — such as the ambulance service or fire department — in the town where you live, to alert them that you have a VAD and to explain what this means for your care.

Recovery

Once you're home you'll need to do a daily check to make sure the device is working properly. This takes just a few seconds and all you need do is press a button that cues the device to run a self-test. Your caregiver will also need to change the dressing covering the site where the device exits your body. This takes 15 to 30 minutes. Depending on the type of VAD used, you may need to take a blood thinner medication.

You won't be able to swim or take baths, but once the exit site has healed you'll be able to take showers using a special covering that protects the device from getting wet. It's possible to damage your VAD by touching certain electronic equipment, so your health care team will instruct you about handling electronic equipment before you're discharged from the hospital.

When you're discharged, you will be given contact information for the Mechanical Circulatory Support Program team. If you have any problems with your VAD, you will be able to reach your support person 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

 

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Heart & Vascular Center

Advanced Heart Failure Evaluation and Therapies Program
400 Parnassus Ave., Sixth Floor, Suite A-6110
San Francisco, CA 94143-0118
Phone: (415) 353-4145
Fax: (415) 353-4166

Cardiothoracic Surgery
400 Parnassus Ave., Sixth Floor
San Francisco, CA 94143
Phone: (415) 353-1606
Fax: (415) 353-1312

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Georg Wieselthaler
Dr. Georg Wieselthaler,
heart and lung surgeon
Ghannam Al-Dossari
Dr. Ghannam Al-Dossari,
heart and lung surgeon