Tiny Heart Pump Gives Texas Foster Mom Her Life Back

Vickie Nemec still shakes her head about how she suddenly went from an overbooked hair salon owner and foster mother to dozens of kids throughout her lifetime to knocking on death’s door.

Looking back at that summer of 2015, the 51 year-old San Antonio mother wonders if health trouble signs may have been overlooked. She does know this: Without the World’s Smallest Heart Pump, she may not be alive today.

Although she had fought weight problems and diabetes, Vickie seemed to have her health under control in recent years. She followed a healthy diet, worked out on the elliptical machine and exercise bike several days a week, and had lost more than 160 pounds over the last decade. A recently divorced mother of two adult sons, Vickie was healthy enough to foster up to seven very young children at a time while working long hours at the hair salon she owned and operated.

“I just thought I was tired because of the foster care and 12-hour days at the salon, and my doctor thought it was related to my diabetes,” Vickie said.

But it wasn’t just that she was tired. Her blood sugars were “going crazy,” she said. Her blood pressure, usually low, was “sky-high.” She became exhausted during strolls along San Antonio’s River Walk, and especially when climbing stairs.

“My heart was trying to tell us what was going on, but no one picked up on it,” she said.

In June of 2015, Vickie was gardening when she stepped on a stone that punctured the skin of her left heel. As her foot began to swell, she eventually visited a podiatrist. “The podiatrist told me either I have immediate surgery or I could lose my foot ,” Vickie said. She went into surgery the next day at Mission Trail Baptist Hospital in San Antonio. But while in recovery, Vickie’s underlying health problems finally caught up with her.

She had a massive heart attack.

Three of her cardiac arteries were blocked. Her heart was failing, and fast. Her ejection fraction, which measures the rate at which the left ventricle pumps blood, registered 5 percent – far below the 60 to 65 percent ejection fraction of a normal heart. With the medical complications she was facing her doctors believed she would not survive. The Red Cross flew home Vickie’s two sons, who are in the Marines and Navy, to be with her during what might have been her final days.

Vickie needed percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), a procedure to reopen the three blocked arteries. But her heart was so weak that cardiologist after cardiologist felt the procedural risks were too great. Other options, such as open heart surgery, were out of the question for someone in her condition.

But there was another option. Interventional cardiologist Chad Christopherson, MD, FACC, FSCAI, chief of cardiology at Baptist Medical Center in downtown San Antonio, said he could do the PCI with support from an Impella 2.5 ® , a tiny new heart pump that fits inside a catheter from Abiomed, Inc.

“The Impella 2.5 gave us the confidence to treat such a high risk patient and the protection to perform a more complete procedure,” Dr. Christopherson said.

As part of the Protected PCI procedure, Dr. Christopherson guided the small percutaneous device through Vickie’s femoral artery to her heart’s main pumping chamber, where it could help pump blood out of her heart cavity (left ventricle) to the rest of her body. The Impella 2.5 supported Vickie’s heart during the procedure and allowed it to rest and recover after the procedure. As part of the procedure, stents were inserted to prop open the coronary arteries, increasing the blood flow to her heart.

After the Protected PCI procedure with support from the Impella heart pump, Vickie’s heart improved quickly. Her ejection fraction, (the amount the heart contracts each beat; severely abnormal is less than 30%) rose from 5 percent to 31 percent. Since then, Vickie’s heart has continued to recover, with her ejection fraction now up to 45 percent. She went back to work for several months after her heart recovery, but decided to close her salon to focus on her health and start a new chapter in her life.

“My heart has been getting stronger and stronger,” Vickie said.

Because Vickie’s heart was able to recover due to support from the Impella heart pump, she’s able to do things she feared she many never do again. She has a new appreciation for everyday tasks like exercising and doing yard work. She is hopeful that she will be a foster mom again, and wants to travel more to visit family and see new places. In June 2017 Vickie joined a group of 19 Impella heart pump patients.

“Without the Impella heart pump or the support of the physicians, nurses and staff, I might have died,” she said. “I am so thankful. Together, they made my heart recovery possible.”

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Impella® makes Protected PCI possible

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