A Woman With A Heart

The Lvad Gives Ann Vernon A Chance To Manage Her Cardiac Health and Rema in Full Of Life

Ann Vernon is a medical marvel with the LVAD pump regulating her heart

It seems that everyone who knows Ann Vernon has always considered her a marvel. Now, however, she’s the self-described “Bionic Woman,” courtesy of her LVAD (Left Ventricular Assist Device), a miniature centrifugal heart pump that is cored into the left ventricle and sewn to the heart.

“I was wandering around in Peru and Bolivia with no air, so I had no idea anything was wrong.”

To call the otherwise healthy and welltraveled Ann Vernon “accomplished” and “high energy” is an understatement. At age 73 and “retired” after 26 years as the education director of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Vernon has more friends and more engagements in a week than most people do in a month. Actively involved on numerous boards, the Civic League and area cultural organizations, Vernon has accumulated a prestigious list of local and national awards for her service and for her civil rights activism, namely her role in the 1960s Woolworth lunch counter “sit-ins” in Greensboro, N.C. (she received her bachelor’s and master’s of fine arts degrees from UNC Greensboro).

But, unbeknownst to her until about 15 years ago, a childhood bout with Rheumatic Fever left her heart valves damaged. A series of TIA strokes (Transient Ischemic Attack) and the detection of an irregular heartbeat eventually landed her first in Sentara Leigh Hospital for two days of testing and later in DePaul Hospital, released with a prescription for Coumadin.
Next, the classic symptoms of heart disease began to emerge, resulting in six ER visits between January and May of 2011 and culminating with the implantation of a pacemaker/defibrillator that month. However that didn’t solve the root problem of a faulty heart valve as witnessed by three cardiac arrests—in the bathroom, in her beloved garden and in the Sentara Hospital ER, holding the hand of her even more beloved doctor, John M. Herre, MD, a clinical cardiac electrophysiologist.

“I basically got a new heart; I wear it on my waist, but I basically got a new heart.” Given the choice of six months to live or evaluation as a candidate for the LVAD, Vernon physically, figuratively, and spiritually “embraced” by friends and family—chose life.

A “flip of the coin” (technically, an unblinded, randomized, controlled nationwide study) determined whether Vernon would receive the HeartMate LVAD (made by Thoratec) or the significantly smaller and lighter HeartWare LVAD (made by HeartWare International). She was overjoyed to be chosen for the latter. The new life that Vernon chose is in some ways profoundly different than it was before.

But in all the ways that matter, it is a life that is remarkably unchanged. Vernon must now be perpetually connected to her “six pound pocketbook” that houses a small computer and the LVAD’s batteries, or “plugged in” to a wall socket while the batteries charge at night. And swimming, showers and getting caught in a downpour or without power are no longer options.
But, other than that, this vigorous woman has returned to all of her previous activities with only slight modifications to her fashionable wardrobe: tops that don’t tuck. To her busy schedule of lecturing, volunteering, judging art exhibitions and much more, since Aug. 11, 2011, the day of the surgery to install the LVAD, Vernon has had to add the charging and changing of batteries and of a permanent sterile dressing, the site where the wire from the LVAD exits her body and connects to the battery pack.

“I’ve been totally in awe of this machine we inhabit.”

Before a year post-surgery had elapsed, Vernon, ever the educator, had created a presentation about the various dimensions of her entire experience. Last spring, she delivered it to 250 awed students in the Health Sciences Academy at Bayside High School in Virginia Beach. Vernon, also a talented artist, illustrated that talk with some captivating paintings from a new series inspired by the good, the bad and the ugly of life with ’VAD. They are currently being exhibited in a solo show at Mayer Fine Art.

Though Vernon’s “end of life” issues have changed—she is philosophical about the ethical dimensions of living and dying with the LVAD—for now, and hopefully long into the future, this intelligent, elegant and magnetic woman has chosen to celebrate life.