Ralph Pichler, a former world champion bobsledder and Olympian, was shocked to learn that he had left ventricular failure and was not a candidate for a heart transplant. (Photo: UHN)

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at UHN. In honour of this milestone, the centre has launched a living library with extraordinary stories of discovery, innovation, and exceptional patient care. Explore world-first breakthroughs in heart and vascular care, witness life-saving interdisciplinary collaborations and celebrate the rich history of Canada's leading cardiovascular centre at www.dowhateverittakes.ca.

Each night, Ralph Pichler plugs his mechanical heart into the electrical socket in the wall – a new routine he's been following for almost a year.

The former Swiss Olympic bobsledder was diagnosed with advanced heart failure during a routine visit to UHN's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and was admitted right away to be assessed for the implantation of a ventricular assist device (VAD).

Incredibly fit and active for a man in his late 60s, Ralph, a former world champion bobsledder, was shocked to learn that he had left ventricular failure and was not a candidate for a heart transplant.

"Learning my only options were a mechanical heart or palliative care was brutal news, but I was relieved knowing I was in the right place and I was going to receive the best care," he remembers.

A VAD is a mechanical pump used to increase the amount of blood that flows through the body. Implanted directly into the heart, the device is attached by an electrical wire to an external battery – or an electrical outlet – and a palm-sized computerized controller via an incision in the chest.

The battery can power the pump for up to 18 hours, giving patients the freedom to lead active lives.

Life-saving support

The Mechanical Circulatory Support Program at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre began implanting patients with VADs in 2001. Today, it is the largest and most diverse clinical program of its kind in Canada.

"Philanthropy funded our first 100 patients to receive a VAD," says Dr. Phyllis Billia, Medical Director of the Mechanical Circulatory Support Program and Research Director of the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre.

Until 2016, the government covered the cost of the devices only as a bridge for patients waiting for a heart transplant.

Based on the excellent results from those first 100 patients, the team was able to demonstrate the benefits of mechanical hearts for longer duration of support and potentially as "destination therapy" – that is, as a long-term treatment for end-stage heart failure – which led to ongoing funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health.

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