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What are Ventricular-assist Devices?

Ventricular-assist devices (VADs) are a type of mechanical circulatory support (MCS) that aid the pumping ability of hearts in patients with advanced-stage heart failure. In eligible patients, a small device is implanted next to their heart, pumping up to 10 liters of blood per minute—covering the full output of a healthy heart.

VADs are typically used for:

  • Patients who require additional support while waiting for a heart transplant (bridge to transplantation)
  • Destination therapy, or permanent therapy, for end-stage heart failure patients
  • Temporary support after a heart attack or during high-risk cardiac intervention

The Massachusetts General Hospital Mechanical Circulatory Support (MCS) Program comprises leading cardiologists and cardiac surgeons who provide comprehensive evaluation to patients requiring a VAD to determine their eligibility and recommend the best VAD option for them.

There are three types of VADs:

  • Left ventricular-assist device (LVAD)
  • Right ventricular-assist device (RVAD)
  • Biventricular-assist device (BVAD), which uses both ventricles

In most cases, an LVAD may be recommended. The left ventricle is the heart chamber responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood to other organs. LVADs help to reduce the workload of the ventricle and assist in delivering adequate blood supply to all organ systems.

Preparing for an LVAD

Patients preparing to receive an LVAD will need to undergo a full evaluation of their heart function as well as other organ function that may impact their overall health status when the LVAD is in place. Patients and their support networks will work with their care team to learn how to perform dressing changes, battery changes and how to address other LVAD-related issues that may arise. In addition, prospective candidates for LVAD implantation are given the opportunity to meet with other patients who currently have an LVAD in place to learn more about their experience and how Mass General handles their care.

Learn more about the Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Program >

What to Expect During an LVAD Procedure

Left ventricular-assist devices (LVADs) such as the HeartWare® Ventricular Assist System aid the pumping ability of hearts in patients with advanced-stage heart failure.

During the implantation of an LVAD, the mechanical pump is implanted next to the heart, typically through a midline incision through the chest bone (sternum). A cylindrical core of tissue from the bottom portion of the heart is removed so that the LVAD inflow cannula, a special tube that connects the heart to the LVAD, can be sewn on to the left side of the heart. An outflow graft, or tube, is also sewn on to the aorta, which is the largest artery in the body. These tubes allow blood to flow from inside the dysfunctional left ventricle into the LVAD, and then out to the aorta, so that it can be circulated throughout the body.

The LVAD is run by a small external computer called a controller. Both the LVAD and controller are connected by a small cable (driveline) that passes through the skin of the upper abdomen. The controller runs the pump and provides audible alarms to help you manage the operation of the system. The controller is powered by two batteries, or one battery and electricity from a wall or car outlet.

The total duration of the surgery is approximately four to six hours but can vary based on whether a patient has had previous cardiac surgery and other technical considerations.

Recovery Time for LVAD Procedures

Patients should expect to remain in the hospital for at least two weeks following an LVAD insertion. Because of the overall medical complexity and advanced nature of heart disease in patients who undergo LVAD surgery, patients are advised to prepare for potentially longer overall hospital stays. The Mass General MCS Program has partnered with Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital for specialized LVAD-related rehabilitation care in order to help patients gain strength and conditioning after their surgery.

Safety of LVAD Procedures

LVADs are implanted in patients with advanced heart failure. Compared to medical therapy alone, LVADs dramatically improve long-term survival. In the REMATCH trial, a study to determine the use of LVADS as an alternative to heart transplants, survival was approximately four times longer with the Heartmate II® device in comparison to treatment with medications alone in a similar population of heart failure patients. 

There are potential complications related to being supported with an LVAD. Patients will need blood-thinners to avoid clotting of the device or thromboembolic stroke, a type of stroke caused by the interruption of blood flow to a part of the brain from a blood clot in an artery. Blood thinners, however, increase the risk of bleeding. Additionally, the presence of an implanted device and a driveline puts patients at risk of infections, particularly related to the driveline. As a result, careful monitoring is required.

What Can Affect Outcomes?

Patients and their support networks are active partners with the Mass General MCS team in helping to ensure that the LVAD implantation is healthy and successful. It is expected that patients and their support systems will follow the LVAD education and training while closely adhering to the medication and lifestyle recommendations from the MCS team.

Highly Experienced, Personalized Care

The Mass General MCS Program consists of highly experienced practitioners who have a very successful track record of working in close collaboration with patients and their families to achieve excellent long-term outcomes, with long-term survival rates among patients supported with MCS at Mass General significantly exceeding national and international averages.

Devices used at Mass General are designed for patient-specific needs. In addition to currently available devices, our team uses innovative and investigational devices. These state-of-the-art devices are smaller, more durable, quieter, and have been shown to improve survival and quality of life.