I-TEAM: Suffering fallout after surviving heart failure

Published: Apr. 21, 2022 at 7:00 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A procedure saved a local veteran’s life five years ago but the device that keeps him alive is also keeping him from getting the care he needs.

“To me, it is discrimination medically because you can take someone with one thing but you can’t take him with this or any other patient with an LVAD.” Says the man’s wife.

LVAD is a device that pumps blood to the heart. University Hospital and AU both offer lifesaving surgery. Heart pumps can prolong the lives of heart failure patients, but when long-term care is needed, the I-TEAM found there is a fallout after surviving heart failure.

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, Katrina Robinson has stood by Gary’s side.

“Twenty-one years… He was just the doting guy.” But now Katrina says it’s all changed. “He can’t stand. He can’t do anything on his own anymore.”

She now sits by his bedside. “On January 4th he had a stroke. A massive stroke and it paralyzed him on his left side.”

It wasn’t their first close call with death. Gary underwent lifesaving surgery at University Hospital after experiencing heart failure five years ago.

“We were told without the LVAD his life expectancy was six months to a year max.”

But the heart pump that has kept him alive since 2017 but now Katrina says new challenges have emerged, “It’s like they put him out to die.”

She says the LVAD is now keeping him from the therapy he needs to recover from the stroke.

“I have called dozens (of nursing homes.) They just say nursing facilities and rehabs don’t take LVAD patients and that we aren’t the only ones.”

Just this week university hospital performed its hundredth left ventricular device surgery and this past February, Augusta University Medical Center began also offering lifesaving surgery. Despite it being a local surgery, Katrina cannot find a single nursing home or rehab facility that will take her husband to begin therapy in Richmond, Columbia, McCormick counties…or Spartanburg, Greenville and Columbia, South Carolina.

Not a single facility within a hundred miles will accept a patient with a heart pump. Katrina says he’s now gone three months with very, very limited therapy to recover from the stroke. “Very frustrated. Very frustrated.”

The I-TEAM turned to the Georgia Health Care Association to get answers. They represent nursing homes throughout the state.

A spokesperson told the I-TEAM in an email:

“LVADS require specialized care and oversight… If a center has indicated they cannot admit an individual, it is because they do not feel they can safely meet their comprehensive needs. Would you send a patient, an LVAD patient, to a nursing home,” I-TEAM’s Liz Owens asked Kianna Curtis.

Curtis works with heart pump patients and their families at AU.

“As a LVAD coordinator it wouldn’t be my preference because I know they wouldn’t be able to receive the attention they need,” Curtis replied.

“In a nutshell, their heart is operating on power they require a lot of attention and if a patient is unable to switch the power source, then they’re going to need a caregiver to do that for them,” she explained.

Just how specialized and how much oversight is needed involving patients with heart pumps?

The I-TEAM tracked down federal data on the device keeping Gary alive.

The Maude Database houses medical reports submitted to the FDA by manufacturers when they become aware of information that reasonably suggests that one of their marketed devices may have caused or contributed to a death or injury.

The I-TEAM found more than a hundred reports of deaths involving the heartmate 3 made it into the Maude Database in just March of this year. In that one month, we found “hemorrhage after disconnection to mobile power unit” and “post-implant infection”, a “stuck pump”, a “bacterial infection at driveline exit”, and “flow problems before just cardiac arrest.”

“They have a coordinator that is supposed to train people the nursing staff here locally, but I don’t know if they’re doing that or not.” Explained Katrina.

Nursing homes have struggled to meet even the basic needs of patients since the pandemic hit. Staffing shortages are now at a crisis level.

The nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly half (41%) of all nursing homes in Georgia reported staffing shortages during the week of March 20th.

Katrina does her best to care for her husband. “He is just falling through the cracks and not getting the help he needs. Bath him, feed him…” While also working a full-time job to pay the medical bills. “I can’t give him the treatment and therapy he needs because I’m not trained in that I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s like they put him out to die.” Until death do us part for Katrina and Gary. She says she will continue to fight to get her husband the care he needs to get back on his feet.

Curtis told the I-TEAM they may need to begin advising heart pump patients of the potential problems trying to receive long-term care if the staffing crisis does not improve in nursing homes.

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