Mark Pitzele: The technology saved my life

Mark LVAD patientTo say that Mark Pitzele’s heart failure came as a surprise would be an enormous understatement.

At the age of 48, Mark was living a healthy, active life. He and his longtime partner, Cindy, lived happily with their four teenage and college-aged children. He had a job he enjoyed, working in Sales and Marketing at Thomson Reuters. He loved to travel, fish, and spend time with his kids, and he had recently started acting in local community theater productions. He had no history of heart disease, and no reason to think he might be at risk.

So when Mark came down with a cold, he chalked it up to the Minnesota winter. But the cold didn’t go away, and soon he started experiencing shortness of breath. He went to his office clinic, where he was put on antibiotics. That helped some, but the shortness of breath wouldn’t go away. Finally, on March 3, he could barely walk across a room without stopping to catch his breath, and he had to go to the clinic to lie down. The nurse told him it was time to go to urgent care for a CT scan of his lungs.

The scan showed that his lungs were fine. His heart, however, was not. Mark didn’t believe it. “I’m here about my lungs,” he said, “not my heart.”

Mark was taken by ambulance to the Minneapolis Heart Institute® at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, where an echo showed that his left ventricle was pumping at 10 percent or less. His heart was failing, and it quickly became clear that Mark needed a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.

An LVAD is a device implanted in the heart which helps the left ventricle pump blood to the body. The patient then carries a small pump that is connected to the device in their heart. In patients who are candidates for heart transplant, like Mark, an LVAD is referred to as a bridge to transplant because it keeps them alive until a heart becomes available.

Mark’s LVAD procedure was initially scheduled for a Friday. But it quickly became clear that he needed it much sooner, so it was moved up to Tuesday – just five days after he had learned of his heart failure. But, he said, that was for the best. Having a short time to process this massive change in his life and health put the LVAD into perspective. “I knew I had to do it to survive,” he said.

This is when the timing of Mark’s heart failure came into play. MHIF was participating in a study of the HeartAssist5, a new LVAD device manufactured by ReliantHeart. The HeartAssist5 has many potential benefits when compared to other LVADs: it’s smaller, more lightweight and allows for remote monitoring. When Mark learned of the study, he asked to participate. “Not only did I want the best thing, but I’m a strong believer in research and technology,” he said. “The technology saved my life.”

Then it became a race against time. Mark had to get insurance approval, which ultimately required MHIF research physician Dr. Benjamin Sun to personally get on the phone with Mark’s insurance company. Insurance approval was received at 9:40 on Tuesday morning. At 9:45, Mark was randomized into the trial, which would determine whether he would receive the HeartAssist5 or a different device. The research staff learned that Mark would receive the HeartAssist5, and rushed to tell Mark and his family, causing tears of joy from all in the room. And Mark was in the operating room by 10:30.

Now, just over a month after learning that he had heart failure, Mark is back at home with his family, learning to live with his LVAD, and looking forward to resuming his life. He can’t wait to go back to work and to get more active, but he’s grateful to be where he’s at now. “The hardest part is getting used to the LVAD and carrying it around. But I have to remember what it’s doing for me,” he said. “It’s not easy to adapt, but it’s amazing that it’s even an option.”

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