In July of 2010 Former Vice President Dick Cheney underwent surgery to implant a mechanical pump, known as a ventricular assist device which replaces a major part of his heart’s operation. The pump forces a continuous flow of blood into his circulatory system instead of emitting it in pulses like a normal heart resulting in a lack of a pulse.
Mr. Cheney would probably die with a few months without the device. It allows him to function normally—at reduced activity levels—while not feeling any differently than those with healthy hearts. Patients equipped with the ventricular assist device wear medical alert bracelets to inform emergency personnel that they do not normally have a pulse.
Implanting mechanical devices is a last resort for permanent use or sometimes as a temporary fix until a donor heart is located. Patients are carefully chosen for the implantation before their kidney, liver or lungs develop damage from decreased blood flow as a result of a poorly functioning heart.
Also, the implantation is dangerous because the patients are already classified as mortally ill and their body’s functions already diminished. Blood thickness is monitored frequently and regularly to ensure it stays at the optimum viscosity to permit easy blood flow while avoiding thickening of the blood leading to clots.
The risks of implanting such devices are very real and serious and include infection, bleeding, strokes and failure of the device. Patients who have had previous open heart surgery are in greater danger.
The arterial assist devices are becoming smaller, quieter and are simpler to implant while allowing the patient to recover faster. This improvement is consistent with the development of other such heart devices and is expected to continue.
Over the years, many similar and earlier prototypes of the ventricular assist device were implanted with poor results. Thanks to those who didn’t survive, many lessons were learned and better mechanical pumps have been developed.
Mr. Cheney and many others are fortunate to live in this day and age.