LVAD Keeps Mom’s Heart Going While Waiting for a Transplant

Left-ventrical assist device helps stabilize Darla Calvet’s heart

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When her ankles suddenly swelled to the size of grapefruits, Darla Calvet knew her persistent cough was much more than just a common cold. Having returned from a long business trip, she suspected bronchitis, but was too tired to call the doctor and went to bed. The next morning the swelling was dramatically worse.

Darla’s husband Patrick rushed her to the emergency room. The official diagnosis was stress cardiomyopathy that causes an enlarged or rigid heart. This can lead to an irregular heartbeat and heart failure, which often causes fluid to build up throughout the body.

“My nurse called it ‘worn-out mom syndrome,’” says Darla. “That made sense because I was raising two young daughters, working full time and going to school.”

A friend’s physician referred Darla to Scripps cardiologist James “Thomas” Heywood, MD. At her first appointment, Darla knew she had found the right doctor.

“Dr. Heywood is an amazing physician. I think he is probably the best in the country with heart devices and he is also very compassionate,” she says.

Despite taking her medication, Darla’s condition continued to worsen. Dr. Heywood recommended an Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD), a device that constantly monitors the heart rhythm and delivers a corrective shock when necessary.

Darla’s ICD was combined with a pacemaker. This, along with medication, kept her cardiomyopathy manageable for several years. Eventually, though, she began receiving frequent shocks, and her trips to the ER increased.

In October 2013, Dr. Heywood recommended a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which is implanted in the chest and helps the heart pump blood. In Darla’s case, the LVAD was a stepping stone while she waited for the permanent solution: a heart transplant.

Darla wanted a little time to think it through, but her condition worsened quickly. While cooking dinner one night, she recalls, “I looked down and water was literally seeping out of my legs. I told my husband we had to go back to Scripps Green Hospital. Now.”

At the hospital, Darla went into cardiogenic shock, a rare but often fatal condition in which the heart suddenly fails to pump enough blood to the body. She recovered and in January, 2014, received the LVAD.

In the following months, Darla’s heart stabilized and her condition improved, but it was clear that a heart transplant would be the best long-term solution.

In March 2015, Darla’s wish came true and she received a new heart. Since then, she’s been busy volunteering for the new Scripps LVAD Ambassador program. “We’re training our first group of ambassadors who will be visiting other LVAD patients.”

Her game plan for 2016 is even more ambitious. In June, she hopes to compete in The Transplant Games of America. “I’m training for the swim and tennis teams,” she says. And in her spare time, she’s putting the finishing touches on her book “A Guide to LVAD: A Patient’s View.”

“It’s all very exciting. I’m alive because of Scripps, Dr. Heywood and my surgeon, Dr. Sam Baradarian. It’s certainly a path that I didn’t see for my life, but it is an amazing path.”

Join Darla in helping other LVAD patients at Prebys Cardiovascular Institute. Support the Campaign for Cardiovascular Care.