Updated Oct. 13, 2020

If your heart is failing or you are recovering from a serious heart condition, you may be a good candidate for a ventricular assist device (VAD). Learn more about VADs and how they can help your heart.

For more information, call the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute at 1-855-876-2484.

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What Is a Ventricular Assist Device?

A VAD is a mechanical device that helps pump blood from the lower chambers of the heart to the rest of the body. This artificial pump is implanted in the chest during surgery and connected to equipment outside the body. The VAD is most commonly used to support the heart’s left ventricle. However, it also can be used to support the right ventricle.

“In severe heart failure, the heart is extremely weakened, and it’s not able to pump blood to the rest of the body to deliver oxygen that the rest of the body needs,” says Mary Keebler, MD, medical director, Advanced Heart Failure Center, UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute.

“What a ventricular assist device does is after it is surgically implanted, it basically takes over the pumping function of the heart so that the rest of the body can get the nutrients and oxygen that they need to function properly.”

Ventricular Assist Device | UPMC

Who Needs a Ventricular Assist Device?

Your doctor may recommend a VAD if you have a failing heart or you are recovering from a serious heart condition such as a heart attack. In these cases, the device helps your body function properly until your heart fully recovers. If you are waiting for a heart transplant, a VAD may be used to help sustain you while you wait for a donor heart to become available. Your doctor may also suggest the device as a therapy if you are not eligible for a heart transplant.

“Ventricular assist devices as we know them today have really revolutionized the care of patients with advanced heart failure,” Dr. Keebler says. “Not only are we able to bridge patients to heart transplant with these devices, but we also have another option to manage patients with advanced heart failure that we didn’t have before, for these patients that are going to be on support for the rest of their lives.”

How Does a Ventricular Assist Device Work?

A VAD consists of several parts, including a pump, an electronic controller, and batteries. The pump is placed inside your chest and connects to your heart.

If your doctor recommends a VAD, you will be placed under general anesthesia so a heart surgeon can implant the device in the bottom part of your heart. A tube will connect the VAD to a major artery called the aorta. Another tube, or driveline, will exit the abdomen to connect the pump to the controller and power sources.

Ventricular Assist Device Benefits and Risks

Receiving a VAD can improve your quality of life by helping to reduce fatigue and make it easier to breathe, while also boosting energy and strength. People with VADs frequently experience less depression and may live longer, according to the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. For many people, a VAD means a better life.

However, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute notes that receiving a VAD does carry some risks, including:

  • Blood clots or bleeding from the surgery
  • Possible infection
  • VAD malfunction
  • Right-sided heart failure (if a left-sided device was implanted)

People with VADs must take medication to lower the risk of blood clots.

UPMC is a leader in the use of VADs. In 1985, UPMC surgeons implanted the nation’s second Jarvik artificial heart as a bridge to transplantation. Five years later, it became the first medical center to discharge a patient on a VAD. At present, the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has implanted nearly 1,200 VADs. For more information, call the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute at 1-855-876-2484.

“With a ventricular assist device, patients are able to enjoy a much-improved quality of life and personal freedom,” Dr. Keebler says.

For more information on whether a VAD is right for you, contact the UPMC Artificial Heart Program. The team of cardiologists, heart surgeons, nurses, and biomedical engineers can assess your individual situation and determine whether you are a good candidate for a VAD.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.