Robert Thomas had a successful career in the City and everything to live for when without warning, he fell seriously ill.
“When I was 40 I had what people thought was a heart attack but turned out to be cardiomyopathy – enlargement and worsening function of the heart.
“With the help of medication I resumed my life but as the years went by I gradually deteriorated until work and commuting became too much. I retired on medical grounds from my job in the city in 1998, and by 2000 I felt so ill and my quality of life was very poor. I couldn’t walk for more than 50 yards without gasping for breath.
Only 24 hours to live
“In June of that year I ended up in my local hospital. It had got to the stage where I just didn’t care, but I was rushed to the Royal Brompton Hospital where I was given 24 hours to live – all my major organs had failed. For two weeks I was in the intensive care unit (ICU).
“During that time, thanks to the doctors and my wife’s refusal to accept that there was no chance for me, I gradually got stronger. My wife told me later that one particular young doctor there had worked for a whole weekend to keep me alive. That was really the turning point.”
Bridge to recovery
It was at this stage that the possibility of using an artificial heart or Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) was discussed. Until recently, LVADs have been used as a life-sustaining “bridge to transplant”. From this experience, it had been observed that the function of natural heart can improve whilst being rested by an LVAD.
This led to the concept of the “bridge to recovery” using an LVAD to recover the heart as an alternative to a transplant. Robert was invited to participate in a novel bridge to recovery trial pioneered at Harefield, involving the use of an LVAD in combination with drugs with the aim of maximising the improvement in his heart function.
“I was asked if I would like to take part in the research on LVADs,” Robert continues, “I had thought about a heart transplant before but I suppose, because I had been so ill for so long and couldn’t believe that it would drastically improve my life, I just didn’t want to go through that. But it was explained to me that an LVAD could be an alternative to a transplant and I thought it was worth a go.”
Getting on with life
Robert went on to receive his portable electric LVAD and the drug therapy at Harefield. After a period of rehabilitation involving intensive physiotherapy, he was delighted to be discharged in time for his daughter’s graduation.
“The internal bit of the device is four or five inches in diameter and weighs about a kilo so I was aware of it there, and it did take a bit of getting used to,” says Robert. “The batteries which keep the pump going have to be changed every four hours and the dressing around the tube which attaches the internal mechanism to the external power pack has to be changed daily.”
“Otherwise, I just got on with life. I was able to run for the first time in years and started to play golf again. I worked hard to get fitter, hoping that my heart was getting stronger as well as my other muscles. When the time came I wasn’t too worried about having the LVAD removed, I saw it as another step in an adventure!
After the operation I was in ICU for a week, but went home four or five weeks after that. I felt very well.”
It is now over two years since the removal of Robert’s LVAD and he remains in excellent health. “I have to go back to Harefield for tests every month but I also go along to sessions they give to trainee nurses about LVADs. I describe what it has been like from a patient’s perspective – I think I was only the 14th person to have an LVAD implanted with a view to recovery, so there aren’t too many people with that experience.”