BOISE, ID – Saint Alphonsus has debuted a lifesaving heart and lung support program–that without having to transfer patients out of state–the hospital and health system are able to treat the most critical of cases.
Leah LeBlanc is one patient that received lifesaving care as a result of the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program. Here is her story:
LeBlanc didn’t feel right as she did housework late in July at her home in Emmett. She felt tired and had some pressure in her chest, but she ignored it and carried on. The next day, her husband, Paul, was concerned as she began throwing up, and felt extremely weak and dizzy. They suspected her symptoms were related to her diabetes or a recent bout of COVID-19.
A visit to the family doctor didn’t offer a diagnosis, but instead a suggestion to go to the emergency room.
At Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, a 34-mile trip from Emmett, an EKG done in the Emergency Department revealed a failing heart – LeBlanc had suffered a heart attack and was in dire condition. A cardiologist determined that three major arteries in her heart were blocked, so they inserted stents to force her arteries open. The doctor concluded the heart problems were the result of LeBlanc’s uncontrolled diabetes.
She was immediately rushed to the Cardiac Catheterization Lab where an Impella pump was inserted to assist LeBlanc’s weakened heart. The Impella, a tiny pump that is implanted in a patient to assist the heart’s function, essentially gives the heart a chance to rest and heal. Unfortunately, after 24 hours, it became clear to doctors in the ICU that the Impella couldn’t do the job by itself. Doctors initially consulted with the University of Utah hospital in the event she would have to be transferred there for a heart transplant.
Instead, LeBlanc was placed on a venous arterial ECMO – a machine that does the work of the heart and lungs, pumping and oxygenating her blood and moving it around her body so the other organs like the brain, the liver, the kidneys, all the other organs that need continuous blood flow are able to receive it. Besides having the Impella in her and being on the ECMO machine, LeBlanc was also on a ventilator to help her breathe. LeBlanc said doctors at Saint Alphonsus told her she was “the sickest patient in the hospital.”
“It’s as close as you can come to dying without dying,” Dr. Jeffrey Heslop, Saint Alphonsus interventional and structural cardiologist, said. “ECMO allows us to keep people alive until they have a chance to recover. It’s a temporary measure. But if we can keep the brain alive and keep the other organs alive while the heart recovers, that’s really what that therapy offers.”
After five days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), LeBlanc’s heart recovered enough to allow her to be removed from the ECMO. In mid-September, LeBlanc was discharged.
Saint Alphonsus has two ECMO program coordinators, and a care team that is led by advanced heart failure cardiologist Dr. Sophia Airhart and includes the critical care team in the ICU, cardiothoracic surgery, interventional cardiology, respiratory, physical and occupational therapists, nutritionists, pharmacists, experienced perfusionists and bedside nurses. “It is this foundation of teamwork that creates excellent patient care,” Dr. Airhart said.
Airhart serves as the Medical Director of Heart Failure and Mechanical Circulatory Support. Her husband, Dr. Nathan Airhart, is a cardiothoracic surgeon who specializes in the surgical management of patients with heart failure. They envision significant growth in the ECMO program for both heart and lung failure and are currently building a durable left ventricular assist device (LVAD) program.
An LVAD is a mechanical pump implanted in the patient’s chest to assist the heart in pumping blood. The patient can go home with the device, and it can be used as therapy or a bridge to heart recovery or a heart transplant.
“It’s very exciting to think about what we’re going to be able to do (with the ECMO program),” Dr. Wesley Pidcock, MD, ICU medical director at Saint Alphonsus, said. “As this program gets bigger and bigger, and we get more comfortable with it, the possibilities of what we could do down the road, meaning helping more people like her.”
Pidcock said his goals for the Saint Alphonsus ECMO program is to treat patients locally, so they don’t have to be transferred to Salt Lake City, Portland, or Seattle for this advanced type of care.
LeBlanc put it best: “There are no words to express my thanks. Everyone is a hero.”