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Last September, 70-year-old Bill George was admitted to the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre (PMCC) in end-stage heart failure, kidney failure and with a potential cancerous mass in his large intestine.
To survive, Bill needed a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) to help support his circulation, but there was a chance he would not make it through surgery. Even if he did, he may end up on dialysis only to face a fight with cancer.
"I had two choices: get the LVAD or I wasn't going to make it," says Bill.
"It was pretty well a matter of life and death. I figured, what do I have to lose?"
For 25 years, Bill had been living with the idea that his heart could go into cardiac arrest at any time. He was originally diagnosed with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, but recently discovered that the thickening of his left ventricle was actually caused by Fabry's disease, an inherited disorder resulting from buildup of a particular type of fat in the body's cells.
Although Bill was careful to never push himself to the limit, his heart gave out on Christmas Eve in 2014. He was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator but found himself back in the hospital a few months later needing to be treated for heart failure.
From there on, Bill's health began to change. He spent the next four years in and out of the hospital being treated for heart failure, sometimes going symptom free for months, sometimes only weeks at a time. He quit his job as a fishing charter boat captain in Midland, Ont. as he wasn't allowed to operate a commercial vessel given his condition.
"I've been scared a few times – heart failure definitely restricted my life," says Bill. "I wasn't able to do all the things that I normally liked to do.
"I was hoping to keep running fishing charters until I was 110, fall overboard and get swallowed by a big salmon."
When Bill was admitted to the PMCC last September, it was then his cardiologist advised him an LVAD would be the next step, despite the risks associated with the procedure. An LVAD functions as a "mechanical heart;" a metal battery-operated pump. In 2017, the government started funding the device for patients not eligible for transplant, yet the first 200 at the PMCC were funded by philanthropy.
"When they first told me about the LVAD I was scared, because I was still thinking I'm going to be leaving with my heart doing well," says Bill. "But within a day I had come to grips, knowing this is what I need and that I had to go for it.
"There was nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Luckily, Bill also had Dr. Vivek Rao, Division Head of Cardiovascular Surgery at the PMCC, on his side. Despite the challenges Bill's case presented, Dr. Rao fought for him and advocated for doctors to go ahead with the LVAD.
"The Advanced Heart Failure team discussed the complexity of Bill's case. He was extremely high risk, and there were concerns that things could go wrong," says Dr. Rao.
"I suggested to our team that we ask Bill if he wanted to be aggressive or be referred to palliative care. He chose to be aggressive and our team went ahead with the procedure."
Recovery well, spending time with family
Bill had his LVAD implanted in November. The surgery was a success, his kidney function recovered without dialysis and the mass in his intestine was resected and found to be benign. He was sent home 20 says after the procedure with what Dr. Rao describes as "a completely new outlook on life."
"I'm looking forward to another 10 or 20 years with this," says Bill. "It's been amazing – this device helped me so much."
Three months later, Bill is recovering well at home and is spending lots of time with his children and grandchildren.
"I can't believe the love and compassion that comes from the doctors and nurses here. It's just been amazing," says Bill. "The Peter Munk Cardiac Centre truly is a lifesaver."
"I'm also very grateful for the support from my family and friends. Especially to my kid three kids, who went above and beyond to be there for me."