James “Jimmy” Armstrong had sailed the 333-mile boat race from Chicago to Mackinac, Michigan, for 33 years. But when it was time to prepare for the 2010 event, Armstrong was waiting for a heart transplant in intensive care.
“I don’t remember much of what happened to me, a lot of it is a blur,” says Mr. Armstrong, who at the age of 44 had endured a harrowing experience spurred by a severe case of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. “I thought I had a bad cold or even food poisoning, and then suddenly my health spiraled out of control.”
Mr. Armstrong, a local business owner and the father of three young daughters, had no prior history of heart problems. However, persistent bouts of dizziness and nausea sent him to Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital’s Emergency Department in June of 2010. Cardiac imaging confirmed acute myocarditis, which can be caused by many factors including a viral, bacterial or fungal infection; drug or chemical poisoning; or connective tissue diseases, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. While not always life threatening, myocarditis can lead to heart failure or sudden cardiac death.
“Patients with myocarditis often have fever, aches and severe fatigue similar to cold or flu-like symptoms,” says William G. Cotts, MD, cardiologist on the medical staff at Northwestern Memorial, medical director of Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Assistance at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute and associate professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “But Mr. Armstrong’s symptoms were more severe. When he was referred to cardiac specialists at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, the myocarditis had resulted in such severe heart failure that full-support VADs were his only hope,” says Dr. Cotts.
Mr. Armstrong underwent a procedure during which a HeartWare VAD was implanted into each ventricle of his heart, known as biventricular configuration or BiVAD, until a donor heart became available. His surgery was the first time in North America when two HeartWare VADs were implanted into a single heart.
Edwin C. McGee, Jr., MD, cardiac surgeon on the medical staff at Northwestern Memorial, surgical director of Heart Transplantation and Mechanical Assistance at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute and associate professor of Surgery at Feinberg, performed the life-saving intervention. The HeartWare VAD is the smallest full-support VAD currently available for study in humans in the United States.
The BiVADs kept Mr. Armstrong alive for four months until October of 2010, when a donor heart became available and he underwent a heart transplant at Northwestern Memorial. Today, just one year later, he has resumed an active lifestyle and is once again sailing.
“I wouldn’t be here if Northwestern’s team hadn’t acted as fast as they did to save my life,” Mr. Armstrong says.