CHARLOTTESVILLE — There’s a gag Wayne Dye likes to play on the new nurses.

As Dye’s doctor walks into the exam room, he’ll ask the nurse to check for Dye’s heartbeat, exchanging a wink with Dye as he talks. She’ll grab her stethoscope, press the cold medal to Dye’s chest and lean in to listen. And — nothing.

The sound coming from the other end of stethoscope isn’t typical thumpthump, thumpthump of a healthy beating heart.

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Instead, Dye’s chest sounds more like a vending machine as the device that keeps him alive gives off a perfunctory buzz.

Sometimes he and the doctor let out a laugh as the nurse’s eyes grow wide; sometimes they let her panic for a moment, searching frantically to find Dye’s pulse. Gets ’em every time, said Dye, 75, of Charlottesville.

For two years, the congestive heart failure patient has been living with a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD — a surgically-implanted, battery-operated device that pumps blood through his body. His doctors with Community Health Network say Dye has become an unofficial ambassador for the network’s LVAD program, meeting regularly with other heart-failure patients to tell them about his experience and how the device saved his life.

Deadly diagnosis

In 2007, while on a fishing trip with his son and a few friends, Dye started feeling ill — he had trouble breathing, grew tired easily. He visited a clinic in the Canadian town where they were staying, expecting a diagnosis of minor flu, the kind of thing that would clear up with some medicine and a little rest.He was sure he’d be down a day or two, then back out on the lake, his lure in search of a hearty dinner.

But doctors told Dye his condition was grave. Their tests showed his heart wasn’t doing enough to pump blood through his body. That triggered kidney failure, which caused water retention so severe, his lungs began to fill with fluid.

Ever so slowly, painfully, he was drowning, his doctors told him.

Dye arrived at Community Heart and Vascular Hospital in Indianapolis a day later to be examined by a specialist. Eventually, Dye was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

“They kept asking me, ‘When did you have your heart attack?’ and I’d say ‘I’ve never had a heart attack,’” Dye said.

But he did have a heart attack at some point, the cardiologist told him — at least twice.

A last resort

The doctors at Community Heart and Vascular Hospital started Dye on a treatment plan they hoped would make his heart stronger. But things never seemed to get better, said Dye’s wife, Judy.Walking from the front door of their Charlottesville home to the car in the driveway left him short of breath, exhausted. His fluid-filled lungs put a heavy weight on his chest; he couldn’t lie down to sleep because it was too painful, she said.

His wife sometimes woke in the middle of the night to find him leaning against the kitchen pantry door, snoring away, standing up in a desperate attempt to sleep.

It went on for years — until finally Dye’s heart function was so poor that doctors began to fear it was only a matter of time before it gave out completely.

They told Dye, then 72, about the LVAD, the battery-operated device now implanted into his heart to pump the organ mechanically.

Where a healthy heart fills with blood then pumps blood, nutrients and oxygen to the rest of the body, the LVAD pulls blood into the heart, spins it around and shoots it out again to create a continuous flow of blood to the body, said Jodie Hanchar, a nurse practitioner and Community Health’s LVAD coordinator.

The surgery brought risks, and the device required an entirely new lifestyle — a overhaul of their diet, training on the mechanics of the device, a support system should something go wrong.

Before the surgery, the couple met with pastors and social workers to make sure they understood the commitment.

But the choice to have an LVAD implanted didn’t feel like a choice at all.

It was a godsend — something to finally bring them some normalcy, maybe get Dye out on that lake to fish again.

Second life

The surgery kept Dye in the hospital for 30 days; he dropped 50 pounds during recovery as the device restored his body’s ability to process fluid.He learned to cope with the strange device that is now a part of him — both inside and out. A cord sticks out of Dye’s belly, connecting the heart pump in his chest to two exterior battery packs, draped around his shoulders like a vest. He wears the vest everywhere he goes — sometimes drawing nervous stares from people who think he’s sporting a gun holster, Dye said with a laugh.

But he can breathe. He can walk without growing tired. He can sleep lying down and feel no pain. And those are the changes he focuses on when talking to patients considering the device.

Now, happy and healthy again, Dye has taken it upon himself to meet with others suffering from heart conditions to tell them about what life with an LVAD is really like.

Prior to his surgery, Dye said he bumped into an LVAD patient who was walking the halls of the hospital. Dye started asking the man about what the surgery and how the device affected his daily routine.

It helped so much, he and his wife decided they wanted to offer that same kindness to others. They often volunteer to meet with people considering the surgery, making special trips to Indianapolis to sit with a patient for as long as they need and answer any questions.

“We try to just put people at rest; we tell them what they can expect to go on,” he said.

Once a month, Dye attends an outpatient support group hosted at the cardiovascular hospital. There, he speaks candidly about his experience with the LVAD and makes himself available for one-on-one conversations with patients wanting to learn more, said Lisa Mahan, a nutritionist who leads the group.

After the patient has the surgery and the LVAD — which can last up to 20 years — is implanted, Dye always makes sure to visit them in the hospital to see how they are doing and make sure they are settling in well.

A first-hand account of Dye’s story is invaluable for fellow congestive heart failure patients who are weighing their options, said Hanchar.

“I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how great this device it, but I’ve never lived with it,” she said. “We think it’s so important for someone to meet with one of our patients because it gives them a different perspective.”

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.