It took Don Ingram’s family doctor no time to realize something was very wrong with his longtime patient. Don had just returned home from a trip to British Columbia where he had contracted pneumonia. Don was told to go directly to the emergency room. He was going into heart failure.
Not five years prior, Don was fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) as the left side of his heart was working inefficiently. However, it had been years since this incredibly active gentleman found himself benched from most of his activities. An avid hiker, swimmer and skier, Don was living the life until he was faced with the possibility of it ending abruptly.
“The efficiency of the left side of my heart, which was the pump, was about 12 per cent so they said I had a choice to make,” Don remembers. “We can implant this device or you can start saying goodbye because you won’t be around much longer.”
The device was a left ventricular assist device, more commonly known as an LVAD. This device is a mechanical pump that is implanted into a person’s chest that helps the heart to circulate blood throughout the body.
“It was a strange notion to have something implanted in me with a battery operated system and it was going to be the only thing keeping me going.”
Where Don differs from most severe cardiac patients is that he rarely, through his own accounts, grew anxious at the prospect of his failing heart, the LVAD surgery or the possibility of dying.
“For me it boils down to a faith issue,” Don admits. “I am a Christian and I believe that there is an afterlife so whether that was to be my last week on the earth or am I to carry on, I was basically ok with that.”
Accepting of what this life or the next had to offer and with no expectation, Don went in for emergency surgery for his lifesaving LVAD.
“I came out of the surgery and realized, well, ok, here I am, I’m still functional,” he remembers. Faith-based and spiritually inclined, Don took every day one step at a time. Willing himself to return to his once active lifestyle and let his latest life-saving accessory backpack be just that.
It’s a rarity to have someone given such a grim diagnosis continue to look at life with such a positive spin. It is this positive attitude that inspired the idea for the web series, Life Extended. His story just had to be shared with the world.
“A year-and-a-half ago, I met this incredible patient and knew right away that he had a story to tell,” says Natalie Jarvis, a communications and marketing officer for the QEII Foundation. “The QEII Health Sciences Centre is an amazing place, changing and saving lives every day. We wanted to demonstrate the advanced health care that is happening in our community and that health care is often not a one-time transaction – it can impact a life over the long-term.”
In fact, Don recalls the predicating factor that had led to him becoming involved in Life Extended. Having been well on his way through recovery and returning to his active lifestyle, VAD coordinator, Sonja Osmond, requested that he speak to a fellow patient who was just beginning the process.
“When I walked into the room I could see how anxious they were and people are inclined to imagine the worst,” Don remembers. The patient was a man in his late 40s. Surrounded by family, the idea of having a machine run his heart was undoubtedly terrifying. But Don was living proof that once given this device, patients are not confined to a life in a bed or made to rely on a wheelchair.
It was this calming presence and soon to be developed friendship that Don created amongst other LVAD patients that helped to foster the need to share his story.
On top of the personal connections Don made with fellow patients, he continued to lend his experience to educate medical practitioners outside the cardiology department.
“There aren’t that many LVAD patients around — about 20 today in Atlantic Canada — so when we show up in the emergency room, the pressure is on the medical practitioner to know what to do and what not to do,” he said. “If they did chest compressions that would be the end of us.”
Taking common vitals on an LVAD patient, Don explains, is also complicated. For instance, LVAD patients do not have a pulse. An oddity, as episode seven addresses, that he is still getting used to.
In short episodes, Don candidly shares his story. Drawing on his own experience, handling every moment with faith and positivity, his hope is to further lessen the anxiety around the topic of LVADs and eliminate any trepidation or worry to its efficacy in patients just starting on their journey.
“I would hope that these patients would look at this series and understand that they can survive such a revision in their life,” Don says. “You wake up from the surgery and you continue to wake up every day after that and ask what is possible for that day and just go from there.”