By Ann McCreary
There were a couple of weeks last fall, after being diagnosed with heart failure, when Ed Ward couldn’t sleep at night.
“I couldn’t breathe when I laid down. And I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up,” Ward said. “I had pretty much given up the ghost in October. I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
Today, his outlook is a lot more optimistic, thanks to a pioneering approach to heart surgery.
Two months ago, Ward underwent a new surgical procedure at the University of Washington Medical Center, becoming the first person in the Pacific Northwest to receive a specialized device to correct his heart condition.
Relaxing on the deck of his home by the Twisp River last week, Ward said he’s glad he decided to take the leap of faith and become one of only two dozen people in the world who have received the new device, which is implanted in the heart to help it pump more efficiently.
“I’m really happy about it. It’s giving me another 5 to 10 years,” said Ward, who will be 75 in November. When he was released from UW Medical Center after the receiving the device, he said his doctors asked him, “How about another 20 years?”
Ward, an active retiree who enjoys golf, fishing, hunting and working around his home, began feeling unwell in 2016. “I noticed I was getting short of breath. I tried to get in shape, but I couldn’t. Even golf was getting to be a chore,” he said. Last summer, he didn’t even want to play.
His wife, Linda, was concerned, but Ward was reluctant to see a doctor. “He’d be feeling tired. But he doesn’t even want people to know he’s not feeling well. He’s Ed Ward,” she said.
But last Labor Day weekend, Ward couldn’t ignore it any longer. “I went down and out. I had no energy,” Ward said.
He went to see his doctor at Family Health Centers in Twisp. “She put her stethoscope on me and said, ‘Oh my God, your lungs are full of water.’”
Ward began taking medication to reduce the fluid buildup in his lungs and body that had boosted his weight by 50 pounds and made his legs swollen. The medication gradually improved his shortness of breath, but only after those frightening times last fall when he was afraid to sleep for fear of not waking up again.
Cardiologists found that heart failure had enlarged Ward’s heart, which caused the muscles and valves to stretch. As a result, the mitral valve in the left chamber of his heart was not closing properly, which meant that some blood was flowing backwards (called mitral valve regurgitation), rather than being pushed into the body. That led to fluid buildup in the lungs, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Ward was referred to Creighton Don, a cardiologist at the University of Washington Medical Center. Don outlined options available to Ward, which included open-heart surgery to repair the mitral valve.
“Then he told me, ‘We have this other procedure, but there have only been about 20 in the whole world.’ I said, ‘Well, explain it to me,’” Ward said.
The technique involves inserting a tiny, collar-like device into the patient’s femoral artery with a catheter and directing it up to the heart. It is threaded around the inside of the annulus, a ring-shaped structure at the opening of the mitral valve. The device is anchored to the annulus and cinched together like a belt, pulling the mitral valve together until it can close properly and prevent the backward flow of blood. The catheter-based repair system is less invasive than open-heart surgery, which may not be an option for patients who are too sick to undergo surgery.
Making the decision
Before retiring, Ward worked in quality assurance for nuclear reactors in submarines and surface vessels. He drew on his experience in working with complex systems as he considered whether to undergo the new surgical procedure.
“I thought, the reactor is my heart, and the arteries and veins are the piping,” Ward said. He evaluated it for about a month, then decided to go for it. He was encouraged by the fact that although there had been only about two dozen of the procedures done in the world, “they had been 100 percent successful. I had full faith in their ability … because of my background in fixing things.”
The device manufacturer, Ancora Heart, had trained Don to implant the device and sent proctors to oversee the procedure, which took place at UW Medical Center on April 19. “People around the operating table were three-deep,” Ward said.
Ward was back at his home in Sky Ranch near Twisp two days after the procedure. Had he undergone surgery, he would have spent five days in the hospital and faced a much longer recovery.
He went back for his one-month checkup on May 16. “I asked the doctor if I still have congestive heart failure. He said, ‘I know you like to hunt and fish and play golf. Go ahead. There are no restrictions.’”
Ward will be checked at three months, six months, and annually. He is a participant in a national clinical trial of the new device, and his status will be followed to assess the effectiveness of this approach, called “AccuCinch” by the manufacturer. Don expects to evaluate two or three more patients for the procedure at UW Medicine, one of 15 locations nationwide participating in the study.
The number of Americans living with heart failure is expected to reach 8.5 million by 2030, and up to 74 percent of people with heart failure also suffer, like Ward, from mitral valve regurgitation. If the trial is successful, Don said, it would give cardiologists an option other than surgery for dealing with faulty mitral valves.
Ward has lost weight, is playing golf and doing chores around his property again. “I feel good,” he said. “I hope that what I did will encourage others.”