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New alternative for patients too sick for heart transplant

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Scott Fitzgerald's heart was failing, but he wasn't ready for a new heart. So his medical team turned to a left ventricular assist device, or L-VAD.

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.

He explains, "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 was too sick for a heart transplant, so his doctors turned to an L-VAD to keep him alive.

Dr. Tom Heywood, Scripps Clinic, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, says, "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."

L-VAD 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 L-VAD more than doubled one year survival rates.

Fitzgerald says, "I had more energy. It wasn't 100 percent. It was probably 75 percent better than what it was. I had my life back. The L-VAD made a huge difference."

With the help of the L-VAD and a gastric sleeve, Fitzgerald lost 65 pounds and got his heart transplant.

Dr. Heywood continues, "When he got the transplant, he was quite healthy because of the pump. He recovered."

Dr. Heywood has a message for other heart patients, he says, "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."

Despite the road map of scars on his chest, Fitzgerald says life gets better every day.

The L-VAD does come with risks like stroke, infection, and malfunction, and it is expensive at about $85,000.

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