Device improves quality of life for young cardiac patients

December 8, 2022

EDMONTON — Two patients at the Stollery Children’s Hospital are the first in North America using a new lighter, more mobile, driving unit for their ventricular assist device (VAD), giving them more independence while awaiting a heart transplant.

A VAD is used in patients experiencing heart failure; that is, their hearts are not able to pump enough blood. The VAD consists of a surgically implanted pump, tubes that connect the pump to the heart, a control system, a power source and a driving unit, which pushes air in and out of the pumps to help move the blood through the heart to the body.

Until now, the only option for VAD drivers for young pediatric patients, who weigh less than 25 kg, was a large, heavy machine, weighing between 70 kg and 90 kg, with limited battery life. Patients could only be away from a power source for 20 to 30 minutes, limiting what they could do in the hospital.

The new device – the Berlin Heart EXCOR Active — is 13.5 kg, more mobile, and offers longer battery life than the previous device. Patients can now leave a power source with

10-12 hours of battery life, allowing walks in the hospital, longer visits to physiotherapy, and trips outside of the hospital. The new device is also much quieter, helping children get better sleep.

“Unfortunately, our wait times for heart transplant in Canada are quite long, so even our highest-priority transplant patients can wait six months, a year or longer in hospital,” says pediatric cardiologist Dr. Jennifer Conway, Director of the Stollery Heart Function and Cardiomyopathy Program. “This new VAD driver can dramatically improve the patient and family’s quality of life while waiting in hospital during that time.”

The new device could be “the first step” toward being able to discharge these patients home while they await transplant, says Dr. Holger Buchholz, Director of the Pediatric and Adult Artificial Heart Program at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute.

“Our goal is not to have patients waiting for months in a hospital,” says Dr. Buchholz. “We want to try to get them home, integrate them in their normal life again, go to school, the playground, be able to be around their friends and siblings. It’s really the next step for better healthcare and better outcomes.”

Roy Eackett’s three-year-old son, Greyson, has been in the Stollery for more than eight months. Greyson recently started using the new VAD driver, opening up a world of possibilities.

“It’s unbelievable,” says Roy. “The ability to get him out, get him exercising, building muscle, becoming stronger, really increases our chances for a quick recovery once we do get the gift of transplant. It’s no longer the limitations of the machine holding him back. It’s just his physical limitations and now we can work on decreasing those limitations. It makes me feel really good.”

The Pediatric Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) Program is a joint program supported by the Stollery and the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. It is one of the largest VAD programs in North America and has been at the forefront of mechanical circulatory assist device treatment since 2005, when the program became the first pediatric site in Western Canada to implant a Berlin Heart left VAD.

The program received special approval from Health Canada to use the Berlin Heart EXCOR Active, since the device is not yet widely approved in Canada.

The Stollery Children’s Hospital/Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute team is a member of the Western Canadian Children’s Heart Network, a group of pediatric cardiac programs across Western Canada that work in collaboration to deliver the best possible care for pediatric cardiac patients. The Stollery/Maz program is Western Canada's largest referral centre for pediatric cardiac surgery and a national leader in pediatric heart transplantation.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.