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 of seven kids to death’s door.

Almost two years after nearly dying, the 50-year-old San Antonio mother and hairdresser wonders if health trouble signs may have been overlooked. She does know this: Without a small intravenous heart pump and the exceptional care she received from her physician and his team, she may be facing a life on disability – if she was even still alive.

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 seven very young children 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. The sore persisted, and her foot began to swell. Her doctor referred her to a podiatrist.“ The podiatrist told me either I have immediate surgery or I could lose my foot,” Vickie said. Part of her left heel was removed the next day during surgery at Mission Trail Baptist Hospital in San Antonio. But while in recovery, Vickie’s underlying health problem 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. Her doctors did not think she was going to make it. The Red Cross flew home Vickie’s two sons, who are in the Marines and Navy, to be with her during what may be 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 intravenous 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, six tiny wire-mesh stents were inserted to prop open the reopened arteries, increasing the blood flow to the rest of her organs.

After the Protected PCI procedure, Vickie’s heart improved quickly, her ejection fraction rising from 5 percent to 31 percent. Since then, Vickie’s heart has continued to heal, with her ejection fraction now up to 45 percent. She is back to working six to seven hours a day, four days a week at her hair salon.

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

Her weak heart and resulting poor circulation explained why Vickie’s heel wound had trouble healing. In addition, her diabetes made her more vulnerable to infection, which doctors discovered had spread from her foot throughout her body.

While her heart is doing well, her foot has yet to completely heal. She has undergone a number of treatments, including the insertion of peripheral stents to open up the veins in her legs to aid circulation. She hopes a skin graft will finally take care of the problem, which limits her activities.

​Once her foot heals, she plans to increase exercise, return to her yard and garden work, up her hours at work, and be a foster mother again. She hopes for a girl, five or six years old. She also wants to do more traveling, especially to visit her sons.

“If there had been no Impella or had the support from my physician and care team been any different, I might have died,” she said. “Even if I’d lived, I would have had to go on disability, so what kind of life would I have had?”

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Making heart repair safer for no-option patients recommended for a PCI procedure

  • The world’s smallest heart pump
  • Impella® is a heart pump intended for temporary (≤ 6 hours) use by patients with severe symptomatic CAD and diminished (but stable) heart function who are undergoing PCI but are not candidates for surgical coronary bypass treatment

Impella® makes Protected PCI possible

Ask Your Cardiologist About Protected PCI

While your cardiologist will discuss treatment options with you, a Heart Team will evaluate you to recommend the option that’s right for you.