Enthusiastic Angels baseball fan Elizabeth Vayssie had an inkling the numbness and tingly feeling in her neck and arms and a recurrent feeling of heaviness meant something was seriously wrong.
But it wasn't until she got dizzy and nearly passed out while watching a game at a local restaurant that she decided to seek help.
In July 2019, the Anaheim resident went to the emergency room (ER) at UCI Medical Center for shortness of breath and a persistent cough she’d been told previously was bronchitis. She described her other symptoms: the tingling, numbness and heavy feeling in her arms and neck, intermittent chest pain, chronic tiredness and abdominal bloating.
A cardiac enzyme test showed her heart muscle was damaged and not getting enough oxygen. An echocardiogram showed enlarged and weakened heart chambers. The diagnosis: heart failure.
“I was relieved at first when they said it wasn’t bronchitis, but when they told me how bad it was, I was shocked,” she recalls.
Nine months later, when the best medical therapies couldn’t stop her condition from worsening, UCI Health launched Orange County’s first ventricular assist device program and Vayssie received a life-saving implant that took over the work of her failing heart.
Heart failure is hard to diagnose
An estimated 6.2 million Americans suffer from heart failure, causing about 309,000 deaths each year, according to the American Heart Association.
But like many patients with heart disease, the 56-year-old human resources professional had chalked up her symptoms to other things.
Her bronchitis caused the shortness of breath and coughing. Her new job and buying a house caused her fatigue. A GI specialist said her abdominal bloating was caused by gluten intolerance. Two separate cardiologists had told her heart was just fine despite a lifelong irregular heartbeat.
The ER team was sufficiently concerned about her condition that they admitted Vayssie to the hospital and she was immediately put in the care of cardiologist Dr. Dawn Lombardo, founder and director of heart failure services at UCI Health and an expert in women’s heart disease.
According to Lombardo, despite increased awareness in recent years, only about half of all women recognize that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of U.S. women.
By the end of her one-week stay, Vayssie’s condition was stabilized. She had lost a gallon of fluid in her stomach, the equivalent of 10 lbs. of water weight, and felt substantially better.
“I didn’t know that the bloating, coughing, shortness of breath and fatigue were symptoms of heart failure. I think a lot of people have no idea,” she says.
Lombardo tried several proven medical therapies to improve her heart condition, but Vayssie was unable to tolerate even the smallest doses of medications due to low blood pressure from her weakened heart.
Bridge to a heart transplant
By November 2019, the heart-failure team began to discuss a pacemaker, mechanical support devices (MCS) and a heart transplant with Vayssie. UCI Health doesn't perform heart transplants, but its cardiothoracic team was working hard to start a ventricular assist device program.
In December, Vayssie received a pacemaker to correct the dramatic worsening of her irregular heartbeat. Then as the world shutdown for COVID-19 in March 2020, she began suffering constant chest palpitations and felt increasingly weak and fatigued.
On April 16, she underwent a diagnostic heart catheterization that confirmed poor cardiac function. Her condition had progressed to advanced heart failure — the stage when traditional therapies and symptom management no longer work.
“Elizabeth was in dire need of a LVAD to support her heart,” says Lombardo.
Lombardo introduced her to UCI Health cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Fabio Sagebin, who specializes in advanced heart failure and mechanical circulatory support devices, and had just received certification to begin performing LVAD implantation.
“When I first met Elizabeth, I knew immediately that she would be a great candidate. When I told her that she would be the first patient at UCI Health and in Orange County to receive an LVAD, she didn’t hesitate,” says Sagebin, “She was fearless.”
The device takes over the pumping action of the heart muscle. One end of the pump is attached directly to the heart’s left chamber, called a ventricle, where blood flows through the aorta, the heart’s main artery, to the rest of the body. A tube called a driveline, connects the device through a hole in the abdomen to a smartphone-sized controller carried outside the body.
LVADs have two primary uses in heart-failure patients: as a bridge while they wait for a heart transplant and as a long-term treatment for patients who can’t have a transplant due to other medical conditions.
Life-saving care close to home
LVADs are not a new technology, but Sagebin was recruited to join UCI Health because of his skill in minimally invasive implantation techniques that reduce surgical risks and complications while allowing patients to recuperate much faster. Advanced heart-failure patients can now remain close to home as they recover and receive vital follow-up care.
Vayssie received her LVAD implant on April 22. She awoke that afternoon and was sitting up in a chair by the evening. In a few days, she was happily shopping for VAD accessories from her hospital bed. She was discharged less than two weeks later.
“She’s a positive person and she wanted to get better,” Sagebin says. “We couldn’t have asked for a more ideal patient.”
At her first post-op appointment, Vayssie was excited to share that she could hold up her arms to blow-dry her hair and walk up the stairs without getting short of breath.
“The care I received at UCI Health was phenomenal,” says Vayssie.
Along with Lombardo and Sagebin, she credits her nursing and rehabilitation team — Tamara Chaker, Katie Tran, Joey Rodriguez, Pedro Portes and Efrain Cerrato — for her peace of mind as she navigates her new life.
“I call them my team of angels. They have been there for me 24/7,” she says.
Sagebin and Lombardo are thrilled with Vayssie’s progress. She returned to work part-time just six weeks after surgery and is on the heart transplant list at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
The LVAD implant not only saved Vayssie’s life, Lombardo says, it also “has given her terrific quality of life and the opportunity for her body to get healthier while she awaits a heart transplant.”
Inspired by the care and compassion she has received, she is already paying it forward. She and friend Scott McClennan, who had an LVAD implanted at Keck Medicine of USC, have founded an Orange County support group for patients like themselves at UCI Health.
“I’m so grateful to have this second chance,” she says. “Wearing the LVAD has been a big adjustment, but I feel so much better. I’m back to living my life while I wait for my new heart — and I get to see my grandkids grow up!”