Ranch & Coast Magazine: When baseball legend Rod Carew suffered a massive heart attack in late 2015, the last thing he wanted was to be benched for the rest of his life. Carew, an All-Star and Hall of Famer whose Major League Baseball career spanned nearly two decades, had a failing heart and was fighting hard just to survive, much less thrive. Then he met the winning team at Scripps Health.
Carew, an Orange County resident, was transferred to Scripps by emergency transport about three weeks after his heart attack, a cardiac event so catastrophic that it’s often referred to as a widow-maker. Barely a septuagenarian, Carew had advanced heart failure. He could hardly breathe and his lungs and feet had filled with fluid as his heart struggled to pump blood and deliver oxygen throughout his body. His doctor sent him to the Scripps Advanced Heart Failure and Mechanical Circulatory Support team.
A balloon pump gave Carew a temporary reprieve, helping his heart to function, but it was a short-term solution to a permanent problem. Then he was moved to Scripps’ cutting-edge Prebys Cardiovascular Institute, where some of the country’s top experts gave him a new lease on life.
“If a patient doesn’t improve within a month, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever regain enough heart function to recover,” says Dr. Ajay Srivastava, a cardiologist and heart failure specialist at Scripps. “It was obvious [Carew] would need something more.”
With Carew’s severely decreased heart function, medication and other first-stop therapies weren’t going to help. The Scripps team discussed their patient’s limited options and possible outcomes with his wife and children. At the time, Carew wasn’t a candidate for a heart transplant — he was a smoker and would have to wait at least six months to even be considered. His best bet, they decided, was a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.
The portable LVAD implant, inserted during open-heart surgery, pumps oxygen-rich blood from the heart’s left ventricle to the aorta, from which it is circulated throughout the body. A thin cord runs from the device through a tiny opening in the skin and connects to a small controller with rechargeable batteries.
“Patients immediately notice a difference in terms of their breathing and how they feel overall,” says Srivastava. “After a month or two, their energy levels improve.”The LVAD, which has been around since the early 2000s, is just one of the high-tech solutions offered at the Prebys Cardiovascular Institute, which opened in 2015 and served more than 6,200 patients in its first year. The $456 million, 383,000-square-foot facility features 108 private patient rooms, 59 intensive care beds, four cardiovascular operating rooms, two specialized hybrid operating rooms, and three advanced technology catheterization labs.
Though long-term data for the LVAD isn’t yet available, Srivastava says the device can serve as a permanent solution, particularly for patients who aren’t eligible for a heart transplant due to age or overall health. “The LVAD keeps them alive and gives them quality of life,” he explains. Srivastava wants to get the word out about the incredible device, which he expects will become increasingly advanced in coming years.
“Awareness about LVADs is still quite low,” he explains. News of well-known recipients like Dick Cheney and Rod Carew help to broaden the public’s awareness of this revolutionary device.
Happy endings also help. Carew, who spent time at Scripps Rehab in Encinitas following his LVAD insertion, quit smoking and devoted himself like a champ to improving his health. The record-setting former star athlete, who played for the California Angels and Minnesota Twins, grew stronger by the day. And just this past December, he received a new heart and kidney during a procedure at a Los Angeles hospital (Scripps doesn’t perform heart transplants). Carew and his wife are already making future plans.
“Patients have options in the current era for heart failure,” says Srivastava. “They don’t have to suffer like a few years back. They can talk to their cardiologists and find out if they’re candidates for these newer treatments.” AnnaMaria Stephens
Carew: Photography courtesy of Scripps Health