Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A change of heart changed her life

Jennifer Monteith had accepted living with a battery-powered heart — then she got an unexpected call. Photo: Lucas Oleniuk, Toronto Star

By Amy Dempsey Toronto Star

On the evening of Jan. 7, Jennifer Monteith decided to celebrate being alive.

“I decided to make myself a fabulous dinner,” she says. “I was at home and I felt like pork chops and mashed potatoes and green beans. And I’d been dying for a glass of wine.”

Monteith had spent more than a year and a half with a mechanical heart — a device attached to her heart’s left ventricle that is powered by a battery pack she carried around in a shoulder bag.

For most people who get one, the LVAD, or left ventricle assist device, is a bridge to a heart transplant. Few need them for longer than six months because a donor heart is usually found by then.

But Monteith was in a difficult situation; doctors had warned her that 98 per cent of all potential donor hearts wouldn’t work because of her unusually high number of antibodies that would cause her body to reject most of them.

“I’d just about given up and I’d settled for the fact that I have an LVAD and it was working good,” she says.

In her Bloor West Village home last January, Monteith prepared for what she calls a “fancy night.” She set the table, cranked the jazz and turned on her fireplace.

Then she got an unexpected call: “We have a heart for you, Jennifer.”

She called one of her sons, who heard the excitement in her voice and asked if she was having one of her fancy moments.

“I said ‘Yes I am. And it’s going to get even fancier.’”

Monteith smiles as she relays memories of her three-year heart journey, but then pauses as tears spill down her cheeks.

“This is taking me back,” she says, mopping her face with a cloth. She chuckles, shakes her head and continues.

Monteith, 57, doesn’t know for sure what weakened her heart, but two years ago she was diagnosed with advanced heart failure.

The irregular rhythm of her heart made sudden death a looming threat. Her doctors say she would have died waiting for a transplant without the LVAD.

More than half a million Canadians suffer from some form of heart disease and more than 50,000 a year are treated for advanced heart failure. Nearly 40 per cent of those patients die within the first year of diagnosis.

Monteith was one of the lucky ones, as just 90 patients have received a mechanical heart from the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre since 2001. The devices cost about $100,000 and are funded by private hospital donors and the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Dr. Terrence Yau, the surgeon who performed Monteith’s transplant in January, says only a few mechanical heart users in the country had one as long as Monteith.

“We really never thought that we’d get her a heart,” he says.

But then, despite incredible odds, they found a match.

It is possible to live permanently with an LVAD, but Monteith says living with a battery-powered heart was not easy. She had to have a friend or family member with her at all times in case of an emergency and be home to recharge her battery pack every six to eight hours.

She says having to depend on others and ask for help was the hardest part. Monteith raised two boys on her own after her husband died in a car accident nearly 20 years ago and she takes pride in running her own business, a trade show support centre at Exhibition Place. One of her sons helped run the shop when she couldn’t.

The mechanical heart kept her alive, but it stripped her of her independence; the transplant gave Monteith her freedom back.

“I’m home by myself without doctors and machines,” she says. “I’m able to be on my own.”

More tears spill from her brown eyes. “God that is such an amazing thing.”

For the first few nights after she left the hospital in February, Monteith says she couldn’t sleep without the familiar buzz of the power unit that had kept blood pumping through her body for 20 months. It was replaced with a sound she wasn’t used to: the thump of her new heart.

“Can you imagine getting a new heart?” she says. “Somebody else giving you a heart and you are able to go out and have a second chance at life and carry on your dream?”

She laughs, wipes her face again and shakes her head.

“It’s just such a magical feeling. I look forward to my every day.”

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