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A Heart for Life

Time becomes even more precious when waiting for a heart transplant. Just ask 49-year-old Michael Guenther of Mahnomen, Minn.

Until recently, he spent long hours driving to and from Minneapolis -- 232 miles each way -- for monthly checkups. Today, thanks to a new heart specialty available at Sanford Heart Center in Fargo, he gets the same expertise just 72 miles from home. For Michael, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“It saves a lot of hassles,” he says. “Plus you feel so much more secure knowing the care you need is this close.”

Rapid decline

Michael’s heart problems began at age 35. An electrical lineman, he’d just installed a 230-pound power transformer when intense pain ripped through his shoulder.

“I figured it was a torn muscle,” he says. “By the time I realized it was a heart attack, it was too late.”

He received treatment, but the massive heart attack caused permanent damage. Chronic weakness and shortness of breath caused him to quit his job and turn to farming.

“For years I was doing pretty well -- until Christmas Day in 2007,” he says. A serious leg infection triggered diabetes, worsening his heart disease.

“Things went downhill fast. I became so weak I couldn’t even finish a sentence,” he says. “I was close to the end.”

The long wait

Michael’s heart failure was so advanced that medications no longer worked. He needed a transplant, but doctors had told him his ailing heart wouldn’t survive the wait. A device called an LVAD -- left ventricular assist device -- could assist his heart until a donor heart became available.

In late 2009 he underwent open-heart surgery in Minneapolis to implant the LVAD. For Michael, it’s a bridge to a transplant. For others with advanced heart failure who aren’t transplant candidates, the LVAD can improve quality of life, even for several years.

“This keeps me alive,” he says, patting his chest. “If it stops, I’m told I’d live only a couple minutes. It’s scary to think about.”

Powered by batteries worn on his belt, the pump is controlled by a small computer above the waist. Daily care includes a bandage change and battery exchanges.

Connecting to a well-prepared team

Each month Michael requires a specialized checkup to ensure his LVAD is working optimally. He now receives this precise care from a highly trained Sanford team in Fargo including nurse practitioner Susan Wojcik and cardiologist Dr. Heeraimangalore Manjunath.

Dr. Manjunath recently completed a fellowship at Mayo Clinic, earning an elite certification in advanced heart failure and transplant cardiology. He’s one of 225 doctors worldwide now certified in this new specialty. Offered by the American Board of Internal Medicine, the certification emerged due to the rapid progress in technology and treatment options for patients with advanced heart failure.

For Michael and his wife, Robin, the availability of this expertise means less travel and less stress. Another plus: communication. “Dr. Manjunath and his team work closely with my transplant team down in Minneapolis. That’s key,” says Michael.

Little blessings, big joy

Michael vividly recalls life before the LVAD. He couldn’t walk 100 feet from his home to the picnic table under the shade tree. “I’d be all played out and would have to rest for a half-hour,” he says.

Today? He easily reaches the shade tree without getting winded. He can mow the lawn. He even does a little gardening. After his transplant, he’d love to get back to a more active life, including water sports.

“There were times early on when I felt like giving up. Now I’m glad I pushed on,” he says. “I have a 16-month-old granddaughter who’s been such a blessing. There’s nothing more wonderful than hearing her come in the door saying, 'Gampa, where are you?’ To me, every day is a good day.”

Posted Date: September 2011