Heart Helper: Device keeps Merced man up and around

By YESENIA AMARO yamaro@mercedsunstar.comMarch 2, 2013 

— Willis “Chris” Moore walks around with two 5-pound batteries hanging from his shoulders and a computer-type controller on his stomach. It’s a Ventricular Assist Device -- a machine that helps his heart function so he can live a normal life until a heart becomes available for a transplant.

Moore gets stared at by people when he’s in public. “They think I’m packing guns,” he said laughing. “It’s a pain in the butt to wear around, but it’s something that’s keeping me around.”

The 54-year-old Merced resident had back-to-back massive heart attacks in 2008 that caused a lot of heart damage. He now suffers from congestive heart failure and is on a transplant waiting list.

He had been told by doctors in Merced that he didn’t have much longer to live. However, he sought a second opinion that took him to the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center.

There he was introduced to the device that’s helped saved his life. He’s been using it since November, when he got on the transplant list.

The device’s controller and batteries are connected via a wire to a pump that’s hooked up to his heart’s left ventricle. The device does 90 percent of his heart’s work, he said.

“People no longer have to die waiting for a heart,” said his wife, Kelley Ann Moore, 53. The couple has been married for a little over three years.

Willis said Kelley is the only reason that he’s going through this.

“You came into my life to make it worth living,” he told her on a recent morning at their home.

Living a normal life

One of the world's top experts in Ventricular Assist Devices is Dr. Georg Wieselthaler of UCSF Medical Center. He implanted Moore's device.

There are three generations of the device, and Wieselthaler was part of a group of 15 people who helped developed the newest version, which received approval by the USDA about three months ago.

The first successful implantation of the device took place in Houston in 1966, Wieselthaler said. He conducted the first implantation with the newest version in March 2006 during a clinical trial in Vienna.

When a patient's heart fails, it is often so weak that it doesn't pump enough blood into the body, Wieselthaler said. Sometimes heart attack survivors can take half an hour to brush their teeth because they can't move the brush back and forth because of their weakness, he said.

"These patients have the option that they can be supported by this pump," he said.

Patients are able to live a normal life with this device, he said, enabling them to walk, exercise and even return to work.

The batteries last eight to 10 hours. Before going to bed, patients are able to plug into an electrical outlet to recharge the device so they can sleep through the night, he said.

There are two groups of people who typically would get an implantation of this device. One group uses it as a bridge to a transplant because the device keeps them going until a heart becomes available, Wieselthaler said. The other group is made up of patients who are too old for a transplant or for other health reasons are not eligible for a new heart.

The oldest patient to receive this implant was 89, he said.

About 5 million people in the country suffer from heart failure, Wieselthaler said. About 5 percent, or 250,000 of them, have terminal heart failure.

It's important that patients with heart disease get diagnosed by their doctor quickly because advanced heart failure causes other organs to start failing, Wieselthaler said.

Moore is a healthy man, he just has a dying heart, Kelley said.

The couple remains optimistic that they will receive a call anytime.

"We are waiting to get that phone call, 'We have a heart for you, get here,' " Kelley said. "It could be today or within the next couple of years."

Kelley does everything she can to support her husband, and tries to prevent him from getting depressed.

What else can she do?

"I married him knowing that I might only have him for a year," she said. "I will do anything to keep him alive and grow old with me."

One of the biggest challenges facing the Merced couple is financial. They need to raise $30,000 to help cover the costs associated with the heart transplant, Kelley said.

They are raising funds through a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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