While most young men in their 30s are establishing careers, finding spouses, and starting families, Michael LeBlanc was fighting for his life.
He ticks off a list of harrowing ailments that usually affect people almost twice his age. Before his 40th birthday, Michael had already suffered a stroke and a heart attack. Even his mother, Shearlyn LeBlanc, was uncertain of what would happen.
"Michael was getting so bad so fast, we didn't know what was going to happen," she says. "It's the most painful thing you can imagine to watch your child suffer."
But through it all, Michael's unstoppable personality helped guide his family through the minefield of health battles, while UT Southwestern cardiologists and surgeons helped his weakened heart keep pace with his optimism.
Michael moved to the Dallas area 11 years ago from Commerce, Texas, eager to begin shaping his future. But the normal trajectory of his daily life veered wildly one day when he experienced a simple episode of fainting. Thinking he was just fatigued or coming down with something, Michael waited to visit a doctor.
After a few more fainting episodes, however, "I went to the doctor to have myself checked out, and that's when they told me my heart was really weak," Michael says. "I couldn't figure out what had happened."
Like most young, healthy people, Michael didn't initially comprehend the gravity of his situation.
"I was blacking out for no reason, which was weird because I don't really get sick. I have never been a sickly person," Michael says. "I kept getting weaker and weaker."
After a few more doctors' visits elsewhere in the Dallas/ Fort Worth area, Michael received a life-changing diagnosis: heart failure. Occasionally, viruses can attack the heart and leave it severely damaged, but people may not know until months or years later they even had a virus.
Michael's heart continued to weaken, and he sought treatment at a Dallas hospital, where doctors implanted a defibrillator, which delivers electric shocks to the heart if sensors detect it isn't beating effectively.
"Having that thing go off is like getting kicked in the chest by a horse," Michael says. "It was really bad."
Even with the defibrillator, Michael suffered a heart attack in April 2009, followed by a stroke in July. Luckily, he was able to get to an emergency room before the stroke did too much damage.
After several more weeks in and out of hospitals, Michael was finally referred to UT Southwestern Medical Center, where he met with cardiologists and cardiovascular and thoracic surgeons. They deemed him a good candidate for the newest generation of a device designed specifically to help patients with seriously weakened hearts, called left-ventricular assist devices, or LVADs.
LVADs partially or completely replace the function of a failing heart by helping the heart move blood throughout the body.
"Michael had cardiomyopathy, which causes the heart to dilate. The muscle becomes weaker, and it can't pump efficiently," explains Dan Meyer, MD, Professor of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery at UT Southwestern and Michael's surgeon.
"UT Southwestern has always had a presence in studying new mechanical assist devices, so we were honored to be only one of two sites in the state selected to implant the HeartWare LVAD as part of a national clinical trial."
Michael was the first patient in North Texas to receive this newest LVAD in September 2009 during surgery at UT Southwestern. It was his lifeline while he awaited a heart transplant. The HeartWare Ventricular Assist System is a little smaller than a hockey puck and two and a half times smaller than the earliest LVADs, making it more practical and convenient for patients with damaged or weakened hearts to live normally.
"The pump is designed to rest inside the patient's chest. A small cable attached to the device exits the body and connects to an externally worn controller," says Dr. Meyer, a fellowship-trained physician who is Director of Mechanical Assist Devices at UT Southwestern.
"Heart transplantation is still the gold standard in terms of long-term survival for patients like Michael," says Dr. Meyer. "However, with technology rapidly advancing—making new heart pumps ever more durable—patients may someday be able to use LVAD devices indefinitely."
Only a few weeks after his surgery, Michael's energy level started creeping back up. His smile returned to its usual mega wattage, and everyone noticed the difference.
"I was very fortunate to have my Michael back," his mother says. "You couldn't even tell there was anything wrong with him."
Michael was able to adjust to some of the stranger side effects of his new device, including having no discernible heartbeat. The LVAD keeps blood moving continually with no pulsation, so he no longer had a palpable heartbeat or traditionally measurable blood pressure.
"It was a little weird. That's for sure," he says of his heartbeat-free status. "But you got used to it fast."
In the meantime, he continued spending time with friends and family, awaiting a phone call that would change his life again—that he had a new heart waiting.
Michael celebrated his 41st birthday in February—a major milestone considering the tribulations he'd endured over the previous 12 months. Ever the survivor, he had one unfulfilled wish: a new heart.
Less than a week after his birthday, Michael's doctors called and told him to come to the hospital immediately.
A new heart was waiting. "It was truly amazing. I'd literally wished for this day to come and four days later, I got the call," says Michael.
He underwent heart transplant surgery at UT Southwestern. Doctors removed the LVAD and his defibrillator. Less than two weeks later, he was back home and adjusting to his new life.
"I'm grateful that my doctors here had the technology and expertise to get me through to this point," Michael says. "If I hadn't had the LVAD, things wouldn't have turned out so well."
Copyright 2014. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
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