Krystina Henniker's story: a mom with a big heart
"They've given me almost four years that I didn't have back then."
Without the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre (PMCC), Krystina Henniker says she might not be alive today.
"I am so lucky and grateful to the doctors at Toronto General. They saved my life," said the mother of four.
Henniker checked in to a Hamilton hospital in 2010 because she thought she had the flu – but she quickly learned she was experiencing congestive heart failure.
"My mom died at the age of 30 from congestive heart failure," she explained.
Henniker was sent to the PMCC in Toronto for immediate treatment.
"I could not have asked for better people to take care of me," she said. "I feel so close to these doctors now and they are like family."
While doctors worked with Henniker at the PMCC, her four children, aged 15 months to five years old waited at home.
"I was up and down for sure," Henniker recalled. "I had good days and bad but I tried to be as positive as I could be. I was just so scared."
Understanding congestive heart failure
Known to many as CHF, Congestive Heart Failure occurs when the heart becomes too weak to pump blood throughout the body. Blood that should flow through the body builds up in other areas, like the lungs or limbs. This can cause swelling and shortness of breath.
"I was so very tired and weak," Henniker explained. "It took me 15 minutes to walk up a flight of stairs. I definitely wasn't myself."
CHF is caused by other heart issues, like a heart attack or high blood pressure. At the PMCC, Henniker found out the cause of her CHF.
"They diagnosed me with dilated cardiomyopathy," she explained. "My heart was enlarged."
Building the road to recovery
"As my condition kept getting worse they told us I would need a 'mechanical heart,' also known as an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) to stay alive as a bridge to transplant," she said.
The LVAD is a battery-powered pump that's inserted into the chest below the heart and attached to it. It helps a weak heart do its job more efficiently.
LVAD insertion requires open-heart surgery.
"I then had that open heart surgery on June 11, 2010. Dr. Vivek Rao (head of the Division of Cardiovascular Surgery at Peter Munk Cardiac Centre) who is my surgeon said my heart was almost four times the size that it should be," Henniker says.
Two weeks later, she was back at home with her children – her oldest was only five years old at the time.
Living with a mechanical heart
Henniker has been waiting for a heart transplant since 2010. She visits the PMCC regularly.
"I ended up developing a skin infection where the [LVAD's] drive line comes out of my stomach, but my doctors take great care of me. I just take antibiotics for it. I wear my batteries with pride. This LVAD and the doctors there have saved my life. I put my trust in them fully."
As she waits for a heart transplant, Henniker considers how those 'flu-like symptoms' put her on a life-altering journey.
"The impact this has had on my life is watching my weight counting sodium and fat," she said. "This experience has definitely changed my life in a very positive way. I'm so happy to be living my life as happy as I am and with my kids."
Dr. Vivek Rao, a cardiovascular surgeon at the PMCC who implanted Henniker's LVAD, says this device "has revolutionized the management of advanced heart failure." Many can survive for at least 15 months with an LVAD. Because of this, "we are more selective with donor hearts and we achieve much better transplant results," he said.
Henniker has been waiting for a transplant for four years.
Krystina Henniker is the longest surviving LVAD patient at Peter Munk Cardiac Centre. She marks her four-year anniversary with a mechanical heart on June 11, 2014.
DID YOU KNOW?
LVAD – Left Ventricular Assist Device; aka a "mechanical heart"
Nov. 3, 2001 - Date of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre's first LVAD implant
120 – Number of LVAD's implanted at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre from 2001- 2013.
Four years – Longest amount of time a Peter Munk Cardiac Centre LVAD recipient has survived with the device
Nine years – Believed to be the longest amount of time a patient has survived with an LVAD in North America
$100,000 – Approximate cost of one LVAD