Still Going Strong After Ten Years: The Center for Advanced Heart Failure, and its first LVAD recipient, celebrate a milestone.

When Memorial Hermann’s Center for Advanced Heart Failure first opened 10 years ago, Ray Anderson had been told he had only a few months left to live.

In 2008, Anderson had a major heart attack that he mistook, at first, for indigestion. He drank an entire bottle of Pepto-Bismol over the course of the day, but it didn’t help. When he stopped at a convenience store around 5 p.m., the cashier told him he looked like a ghost.

“Are you feeling OK?” she asked. “My chest hurts,” Anderson admitted. “I would go to the ER right now,” she suggested. He said he’d wait; it was rush hour and traffic was bad. But as he started to drive home, the pain intensified and he made a U-turn toward the nearest hospital. As soon as he lay down in an exam room, Anderson lost consciousness.

When he came to, the doctor told him he’d had a heart attack. The next day, he saw a cardiologist, who diagnosed him with congestive heart failure. About half of his heart had simply given out, Anderson says.

Over the next four years, Anderson was in and out of the hospital constantly as cardiologists tried different medications to keep him alive. Eventually, they ran out of options. “Most people were telling me I had three months left, maybe six,” he says.

Then Anderson heard about a team that was preparing to open a new heart center, led by transplant surgeon Igor Gregoric, MD, and interventional cardiologist Biswajit Kar, MD, both with UTHealth Houston Heart & Vascular and Memorial Hermann. Anderson met with them, and they told him about a new technology that could save his life: a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.

About 10 percent of the more than 6 million Americans living with heart failure have advanced heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. At the Center for Advanced Heart Failure, a collaboration between McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and the Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute, patients like Anderson are treated by a multidisciplinary team of specialists in cardiothoracic surgery, advanced heart failure, mechanical assist devices, video-assisted surgery, high-risk coronary intervention and heart transplantation.

“These are very sick patients, and to be able to bring that multidisciplinary care to them is crucial,” Dr. Kar says. “It all happens seamlessly. From the moment the patients arrive, surgeons, cardiologists and pulmonologists are all available to see them – and all at one location.”

In a decade, the center has seen rapid expansion, growing from a handful of doctors to a team of 200 employees.

“It was tremendously exciting to be able to build something from scratch, but it was also a tremendous challenge,” says Dr. Kar. “It was a very audacious attempt, but there was clearly a need for it. With the right resources and the right training, we knew we could build a world-class center, and that’s what we did.”

“It’s really rewarding,” says Dr. Gregoric. “We have the incredible honor and opportunity to change lives.”

Anderson, now 68, was the first one to receive an LVAD at the new center. Dr. Gregoric performed the surgery in 2012. The technology was so new then, few people had ever seen an LVAD or even heard of it before. Anderson asked if he could look at the device before agreeing to the procedure, but the decision was a no-brainer.

“I probably was the test dummy, but I’m glad I was,” he says. “The technology was amazing. If you’d seen me you would have thought I was a robot, walking around with this machine and carrying the battery in a holster. It was a heavy-duty device; I hear they have a smaller one now. But I’d do it again even if they didn’t. It bought me a lot of time.”

The LVAD is a mechanical device that helps the left ventricle of the heart pump blood to the rest of the body. For patients who aren’t good candidates for a heart transplant, it can be a long-term treatment; for others, it’s a stopgap until a suitable heart becomes available from a donor. Anderson was in the latter category, but it took three years for him to get a new heart.

“The main hurdle to getting transplanted is finding a match, and what has to happen to get the match. I wasn’t discouraged that it took so long. I remember people saying, ‘Why don’t you have a heart yet?’ I would tell them, ‘God is preparing a heart for me — and he has to find a big one,’” he says.

Living with an LVAD limits what a patient can do — like taking a shower, for example, since the device can’t be exposed to water. But for Anderson, it opened up a world of possibilities. “The LVAD gave me a chance to come back out of the hospital and enjoy my family, my friends. It gave me a life and a future to look at,” he says. “It gave me more quality of life than I had before. Not that there wasn’t any difficulty, but after I got it, every day I started to feel better. And I was like, ‘Hey, I’m alive.’”

Anderson lost his wife to breast cancer in 2000. The couple had both been married previously, and they were raising nine kids together: five from her first marriage, three from his, and their daughter Raychal, who was 12 when her mom passed.

In 2015, a few days before Raychal’s birthday, Anderson was back in the hospital after taking a turn for the worse. The team was considering replacing his LVAD pump, but there were risks to the procedure and no guarantee that the new pump would fix the problems he was having. His kidneys had suffered some damage along with his heart. Anderson refused to be daunted; he asked his kids to decorate his hospital room so they could have a surprise birthday party for Raychal.

The day the family gathered to celebrate, they brought Anderson outside for some fresh air. When they returned, his care team was waiting at the elevator. “We found him!” someone said. “I thought I was in trouble for going outside,” Anderson recalls. But it was good news. The team had a heart for him. They also had a kidney, from the same donor. Anderson got both organ transplants that night.

“I was just overwhelmed,” he says. A year later, he met the mother of the 23-year-old man whose donated organs saved his life. They’ve stayed in touch and still talk almost daily.

“It was a journey, but I’ve met a lot of people through that journey and made some connections that will last for the rest of my life. That experience brings a lot of families together,” Anderson says. “That gift gave me time to watch my kids grow up, and now my grandkids. I tell my grandkids that I learn something from them every day. They keep me young.”

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Ali Vise