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The Beat Goes On and On

Miniature heart pump saves transplant candidate’s life

Peter Behrig, 61, recently celebrated his trek on foot through a K-mart. For Behrig, who lives with advanced heart failure, the accomplishment was no less a feat than climbing Mt. Everest. His hiking gear did not consist of the traditional trekking poles and backpack. Instead, he relied on the assistance of the battery-operated, miniature heart pump that cardiothoracic surgeons recently placed in his abdomen at Abington Memorial Hospital (AMH).

Kevin Hagan, C.R.N.P., Peter Behrig and
Rohinton J. Morris, M.D.

Implanted during open-heart surgery in January 2012, Peter’s left ventricular assist device (LVAD) works ‘round the clock’ with his weakened heart. Attached to the heart’s left ventricle (the main pumping chamber), and the aorta (the body’s main artery), the LVAD continuously sends blood from the left ventricle to the aorta, boosting circulation throughout Peter’s body. He is the first patient at AMH to use the LVAD as a bridge to heart transplantation. “After Peter recovers from this surgery, he will enter a transplant program in Philadelphia for further treatment,” explains Rohinton J. Morris, MD, chief, Cardiothoracic Surgery. The LVAD will support Peter’s heart until a donor heart becomes available.

Prior to undergoing LVAD surgery, Peter had a history of other heart problems. He had been diagnosed previously with cardiomyopathy—a disorder that weakens and enlarges the heart muscle. In 2008, Peter had surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. Over time, Peter’s damaged heart began to fail. He required multiple intravenous medications, lost his appetite and grew extremely weak. In addition, fluid began to accumulate in other parts of his body, putting Peter’s major organs at risk for failing.

Kevin Hagan, C.R.N.P., Janice Behrig,
Peter Behrig and Rohinton J. Morris, M.D.

“By the time I met with cardiologists at Abington, I had no other choice but to have the pump put in,” recalls Peter. “I had already tried everything else. It was a matter of life or death. I chose life.” Peter’s LVAD consists of the pump unit implanted in his abdomen and attached to his heart, and an external energy supply and small controller (a computer that monitors the pump’s function at all times). When he wants to be mobile, Peter can wear the controller and rechargeable batteries on a belted waistband for up to 14 hours. Otherwise, a base unit plugged into an electrical outlet powers the controller and recharges the batteries.

“Thanks to ongoing advances in design and technology, today’s LVADs are smaller, more reliable, and last longer than previous devices,” says Kevin Hagan, CRNP, program coordinator, Mechanical Cardiac Assist Program.

For Peter, learning to operate and maintain the LVAD was easy, thanks to Kevin. “He was amazing,” says Peter. “Kevin taught me step-by-step how the system works, how to use it and how to handle an emergency. I’m pretty good at it.”

In most cases, the LVAD improves the quality of life for those with heart failure. Yet many patients are unaware a surgical option exists for their condition. “Peter’s case makes it clear that patients who have advanced heart failure, should not be afraid to ask their doctors if there
is any surgery that can help their hearts,” encourages Dr. Morris.

Although Peter is still recovering, he says he feels better now than he has in years. His energy level is up and his appetite has returned. These summer days at his home in Southampton, you’ll find Peter in his vegetable garden or the family kitchen. Formerly the food service director at a Montgomery County nursing home where he worked for 20 years, chef Peter does the cooking for himself and wife Janice. “I have some limitations,” says Peter. “I can’t get the device wet so I can’t go jumping into a pool or dive into the ocean, but I get around and I’m still here. My wife’s pretty happy about that.”

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