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A Home for Heart Care

Jan Larsen’s dog Stormy snuggles into his lap on his hospital room couch.

For close to three months, the Sioux Falls man and his canine companion have been living at Sanford USD Medical Center patiently waiting for a new heart. In the meantime, they’re doing their best to keep busy and make the small, sterile room feel like home.

“I’m able to be here close to family and we can even go for a walk, as long as we stay on the block,” Jan says, scratching the husky-lab mix dog’s ears. “It makes it a little easier to have my buddy here with me.”

A failing heart

The 51-year-old man had a healthy heart until about two and a half years ago, when he suddenly began to feel tired. He thought it was just his work schedule since he was putting in hours around the clock to open up a new bakery in Sioux Falls.

In fact, his heart was nearly shutting down. Doctors think he may have had a virus that caused cardiomyopathy, massive damage to his heart. He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure in the fall of 2009.

When he went to the hospital, he learned that his heart was enlarged to about three times the size it should be. With increasing frequency every day, he was experiencing atrial fibrillation, the electrical impulses inside the heart misfiring and making the organ send blood through his body in an irregular way.

Doctors told Jan that if they didn’t do something soon, his heart would simply wear out from all the extra work it was putting in. There would be nothing that could be done for him if he suddenly suffered a total heart attack.

“I said, ‘hold on here a minute, guys,’” says Jan, who never experienced pain or discomfort during the atrial fibrillation episodes. “In my mind, I felt just fine.”

A way to wait

In November 2010, Jan underwent surgery to “cut the electrical cord” to his heart while he awaited a heart transplant at the Mayo Clinic. What would keep him alive was a small mechanical motor called a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that pumps the blood from the lower chambers of his heart to the rest of his body.

A former mechanic, Jan was hesitant at first to turn his life over to a piece of machinery. Before he agreed to the procedure, he talked with an engineer from the company that designed the LVAD and even looked at technical drawings of the device. Convinced that it would hold up, he went ahead with the surgery.

With the LVAD, Jan was able to live at home and even travel while he was awaiting a heart transplant. Some complications with blood clotting and fluid in his heart sent him back to the hospital at the end of 2011.

Close to home

Since Feb. 4, Jan has been at Sanford, where local heart specialists can keep an eye on an intravenous medication line with an anti-clotting medication and monitor his LVAD and coordinate his care with the transplant center at the Mayo Clinic. While it’s no fun being in the hospital, he appreciates being close enough to see the people he loves.

Jan’s wife works on the hospital floor where he lives and brings the couple’s dog every morning to his room. They get to talk and spend time together every day and his adult children and grandchildren can visit him regularly without a long drive.

He spends his days working on his laptop, spending time with friends and family and encouraging people to consider donating organs to help others like him. It’s important that people realize they need to tell their family members that donation is part of their wishes.

“I could be on the transplant list for a long time, or I could have a heart tomorrow,” Jan says. “They’re taking good care of me here until it’s time.”

Posted Date: May 2012