LaDonna McCormack had hoped to have a new heart by Christmas.
She didn't get it, but she got the next best thing: a tiny heart pump that is literally saving her life every day.
The Heart Mate II LVAD, or left ventricle assist device, was implanted just beneath her heart a few months ago. Though McCormack's lifestyle has been modified as a result, she faces the future with optimism and gratitude for the additional years this modern medical miracle is giving her.
The Benton woman shared some personal information that led up to her situation. Healthy for most of her life, 1993 was the year that it changed dramatically. A viral infection invaded her heart, leaving her with congestive heart failure.
When she first noticed something was different, she thought she was experiencing a minor fluid retention problem. She consulted her son, a pulmonologist, expecting him to prescribe a diuretic to relieve her distress.
"I was really irritated with him at first ," McCormack said, "because he wouldn't do it.
"Hal (Dr. Hal Hughes of Oak Ridge, Tenn.) told me, 'no, Mother, this could be the sign of something serious. You have to see a doctor and be checked out."
In that subsequent examination by a family practice physician — Dr. Kirk Watson, whom she had taught in second grade — McCormack learned she was suffering from a heart condition and began seeing Dr. Bruce Murphy, a noted cardiologist in the state and now the owner/CEO of Arkansas Heart Hospital.
"I thought this was a death sentence at first," said McCormack's husband, Dean, "but Dr. Murphy explained that you can have a normal lifespan in spite of that."
As time passed, McCormack received a pacemaker and defibrillator, which enhanced her health for many years. She had hoped this would sustain her for the rest of her days, but the picture eventually changed.
"Sometime last year, through an X-ray, Dr. Murphy told me that the time had come for him to put me in the hands of someone else," McCormack said. "He referred me to Baptist Medical Center, the only facility in the state that does heart transplants. And from there I was put with Dr. John Ransom, who eventually did the procedure where I received the heart pump."
Ransom is the only physician in Arkansas that performs this type of procedure, she said.
Before that happened, LaDonna was placed on a heart transplant list and was seen by physicians in this area and in Memphis before it was determined that the likelihood was not good for her to receive a compatible donor organ.
"I have high antibodies in my blood, which can attack foreign tissue, and that complicated my situation," LaDonna said. "Last summer there was one heart that appeared to be suitable, but it was in Las Vegas and it would have taken too much time to get it, so that didn't work.
"It's really hard to get a transplant in Arkansas," she said. "I might have stood a better chance in a larger area. We considered moving to maybe Dallas or Miami, but we didn't really want to do that."
She also learned that age is a determining factor with some heart transplant programs. "When we were in Memphis, we were suddenly told that at 70 I'm considered too old for a transplant. I don't know why I wasn't told that before we got so deep into that, but it didn't happen."
Then she learned about the portable pumping device that could be the next best thing to a new heart. That is where she ultimately was led and, thus far, it's worked beautifully, she says.
Her husband, a retired optometrist, is her primary caregiver and has been trained to provide the very specific, technical care she requires.
"Dean has been wonderful," LaDonna said. "I literally could not have done this without him. He's a very critical part of this."
Dean explained how the LVAD works.
"The device takes blood from the lower chamber of her heart and pumps it into the aorta, where it is delivered throughout the body. It's connected by means of a flexible wire that emerges from her abdomen and hooks into a controller and battery packs she carries in a shoulder holster.
"LaDonna's pump is the same kind that former Vice President Dick Cheney showed on his recent book tour," Dean noted, "and the kind that Coach Red Parker at Harmony Grove has."
To date, more than 8,000 heart patients have received the HeartMate II, Dean said. It costs $80,000 itself, although surgical and medical costs associated with implanting it and monitoring it increase the amount. However, both Medicare and private insurers cover the device for eligible patients.
"This gives a longer life for people like LaDonna who have heart failure, which occurs when the heart is no longer strong enough to pump blood normally," Dean said.
The LVAD that LaDonna has is the latest in a series of devices designed to take over for failing hearts. Early pumps were too large to fit in smaller patients, including many women, and they tended to become defective after about two years.
From a practical standpoint, the stronger the patient, the better the outcome, Dean said.
"We knew we were on borrowed time and we're grateful that we've gotten some extra years with this," he said.
As part of the arrangement for receiving the heart pump, LaDonna's caregiver had to agree to be with her constantly, she said.
"Dean couldn't leave me at all once we got home," she said, "I was in the hospital for 40 days and had to have 21 units of blood since Aug. 19 because I have GI bleeds.
"But when I got to be home, he, as my caregiver, had to be with me 24-7 or I wasn't eligible for this," she said. "And he's been wonderful."
She commended her family, neighbors and friends, especially members of the Roundtable Sunday School Class at Benton's First United Methodist Church, for the support they have provided.
"They sent food over here for two months and have helped with everything we needed," she said.
"When I was in the hospital, Mark Norman, our associate pastor, was there every morning at 6:30," she said. "He was wonderful and so many people have been so great to help do the things that we couldn't do.
"Dean couldn't even leave to go to the grocery store," she said. "His brother, Paul McCormack, did all of our shopping.
"And the prayers ... I was on so many churches' prayer lists ... and I can never say how much I appreciate that," she said.
Dean commended LaDonna for her positive attitude. "She doesn't have a depression gene in her."
Her response to that comment was: "You do what you have to do, and I've chosen to deal with this as best I can. We're dealing with the hand we were dealt."
She undergoes heart rehabilitation through a program at Saline Memorial Hospital and she's now allowed to leave home for three purposes: To go to the doctor or to rehab; to attend church; and to go to the beauty shop.
"I can't do my own hair anymore," she explained. "Those days are over."
Modifications are necessary when she showers, Dean noted. "The pump controls have to be put in a bag because none of this can get wet."
He is responsible for the sterile cleansing of the abdominal site where the pump connects to the controller and power source on a regular basis and also monitors her vital signs daily. He explained that she no longer has a normal pulse, something that must be explained to any emergency medical personnel should there be a situation requiring that type of intervention.
"You just can't get a pulse the usual way," he said.
The heart pump also necessitated some modification in her normal wardrobe, LaDonna pointed out.
"I wear what is essentially a concealed weapon undercover vest," she noted. "I have a black one and a white one and it also comes in denim.
"This is a small concession to make to be able to live longer," she said.
There are other changes, like making certain that electrical power and battery backup is always available, but these, too, seem unimportant when the McCormacks look at the big picture.
"We feel like we're in extra innings," Dean said, "and we're happy to have them."
As part of their experience, they have realized the importance of organ donation.
"We encourage everyone to encourage their kids to sign on their driver's licenses that they want to be organ donors," he said. "It's sad but true that there just aren't enough organs to meet the need."