SAN DIEGO - Scott Fitzgerald's dream of becoming a chef didn't look possible just a few years ago. He developed cardiomyopathy, despite taking medication to regulate his heart rate and control swelling.
"I was having problems breathing when I'd walk. I could go 20 feet and I'd start breathing hard. It would be difficult," Fitzgerald recalled.
Fitzgerald was too sick for a heart transplant, so his doctors turned to a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, to keep him alive.
"We put in a mechanical heart, which was about a five-ounce pump that we put in the heart to help unload the heart and pump blood into the aorta," explained Dr. Tom Heywood, Scripps Clinic, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.
LVAD patients wear an external battery and control unit, but the current system is smaller and more efficient than previous models. A National Center for Biotechnology Information study shows the LVAD more than doubled one-year survival rates.
"I had more energy," Fitzgerald shared. "It wasn't 100 percent. It was probably 75 percent better than what it was. I had my life back. The LVAD made a huge difference."
With the help of the LVAD and a gastric sleeve, Fitzgerald lost 65 pounds and got his heart transplant.
"When he got the transplant, he was quite healthy because of the pump. He recovered," Heywood stated.
Heywood has a message for other heart patients.
"We want to let people know that there's a large amount of hope, and that we can treat heart failure very effectively and in fact, cure it in many cases," Heywood said.
Despite the road map of scars on his chest, Fitzgerald said life gets better every day.
The LVAD does come with risks like stroke, infection, and malfunction, and it is expensive at about $85,000. Cancer drugs causing heart problems later in patients' lives is a growing concern.
Scripps Health is developing a cardio-oncology clinic. Patients could get echocardiograms and blood tests to monitor their heart function during or after chemo.