Chemotherapy impacted his heart, but a ventricular assist device keeps Bill Howard going

Bill has to take additional precautions in his daily routine, such as limiting the amount of water that gets near the VAD, checking his blood pressure and weight routinely, and monitoring his equipment.

Bill Howard was loving life after retirement. In 2007, after 32 years with Ford Motor Co.’s Louisville Assembly Plant, he and his wife, Sharon, had purchased their lake home on Rough River in Breckinridge County, Kentucky. The Army veteran was enjoying fishing and helping friends with projects — keeping himself just busy enough. But in 2011, life took a turn when Bill was diagnosed with cancer.

Colon cancer came as a shock to the father of four, but the prognosis was good. Surgery removed the suspicious tissue, and as a precaution, his oncologist recommended chemotherapy. He followed the recommendation and finished treatment in 2011. Five years later, he was considered cancer-free.

Shortly after, Bill started experiencing shortness of breath, unexplained exhaustion and water retention. His cardiologist determined that chemotherapy had damaged his heart and began working with Bill to resolve the symptoms.

“Bill developed chemotherapy-induced cardiomyopathy, which can occur when the drugs used to treat cancer become toxic to the heart muscle and result in heart failure,” said Kelly C. McCants, M.D., medical director of Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure and Recovery Program. “This effect on the heart muscle can be immediate or delayed and, in cases like Bill’s, can bring on other underlying risk factors that lead to coronary artery disease.”

A ventricular assist device to support Bill’s heart

Eventually the symptoms became unbearable, and Bill was admitted to Norton Hospital for a full workup. Within just a few days, medication improved Bill’s water retention, and he lost more than 30 pounds of water weight. Still, he would need more treatment.

A collaboration built on heart

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Kentucky, and the commonwealth has one of the highest rates of heart disease in the country. To address it, UK HealthCare in Lexington and Norton Heart & Vascular Institute announced a collaboration to expand advanced heart failure care, ventricular assist device (VAD) placement and heart transplant services.

For heart transplantation candidates, surgery will be performed at UK HealthCare, home to the state’s largest heart transplant center, with pre- and post-transplant follow-up care performed jointly by UK HealthCare and Norton Healthcare providers. The collaboration will allow more heart patients to receive care closer to home.

Learn more about the collaboration

Some types of heart failure can be treated with a course of medication along with diet and exercise changes. When heart damage is minimal or contained to a specific area, in some cases it even can be reversed, returning the patient to their lifestyle prior to heart failure.

For Bill, medication, diet and exercise were not enough. Dr. McCants consulted with heart failure specialist Bassel Alkhalil, M.D., medical director, Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Mechanical Circulatory Support Program. They determined Bill’s heart would need mechanical support through an implanted ventricular assist device (VAD).

A VAD can be used temporarily while a patient awaits a heart transplant or permanently to support heart function for life. Bill’s VAD is permanent and will support his heart for the rest of his life.

“The VAD has two mechanisms: One is inside the body connected to an external motor,” said Dr. Alkhalil. “Inside the body the device takes blood from the lower chamber of the heart and helps pump it to the body and vital organs. Connecting the pump to the wearable controller and two battery packs is a driveline cable. These components must remain connected at all times and are worn by the patient in a small pouch.”

Bill has to take additional precautions in his daily routine, such as limiting the amount of water that gets near the device, checking his blood pressure and weight routinely, and monitoring his equipment since it is a lifeline for his heart. He also attends cardiac rehabilitation three times per week and is routinely monitored by his Advanced Heart Failure and Recovery Program care team.

“This is a new way of life for Bill and his wife,” said Kimberly Vessels, APRN, VAD coordinator. “They have had to make lifestyle changes, and that takes ongoing education from our team, including a dietitian, pharmacist and nurses to support this new way of life.”

But all of this is not slowing Bill down.

Bill and Sharon also say they have made some new friends along the way.

“Sharon and I strongly feel that Dr. McCants, Kimberly, all of the team are like family to us. We are grateful to them for giving us more time to enjoy life and the people we love,” Bill said.

Norton Heart & Vascular Institute Advanced Heart Failure and Recovery Program

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