Heart month this year has a whole new meaning for a 31-year-old Seneca, Kansas man. “Zach Engelken was very close to death when he arrived at the hospital last March,” Dr. Andrew Sauer, MD, medical director of heart transplant and the advanced heart failure program at The University of Kansas Health System said. Zach’s heart was failing and I feared he had just a few hours to live.
“Zach was as difficult as it gets,” Travis Abicht, MD, surgical director of heart transplant and mechanical assist agreed. “Patients like Zach are the reason we started heart transplant up again.”
Mechanical assist devices play a big part in helping to save lives in this era of heart transplant and advanced heart failure care. Dr. Abicht implanted a Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) into Zach’s chest. The VAD is not a mechanical heart, but rather a pump that helped to restore Zach’s health by keeping his blood flowing to vital organs. Zach was able to return to his home in Seneca and resume much of his life while he waited for a new heart. It took a few months, but his heart arrived Jan. 17, and Dr. Abicht and his team successfully transplanted Zach soon after.
“I remember when my transplant coordinator called me to tell me they had a match for me,” Zach said. “I was glad for the drive over to let it sink in that I was going to get a new heart. It was overwhelming and I am so grateful.”
“VAD can be a bridge to transplant for many patients like Zach,” Dr. Abicht said. “For others, VAD assists a heart in healing or helps a patient’s heart work better when they are not suitable for transplant. Dr. Abicht has implanted 19 VADs since the program launched in Oct., 2015. Many of those patients, like Zach, are waiting for a heart.
Engelken, who played baseball competitively and even thought of trying to pitch professionally before joining his family’s construction business, doesn’t know why his heart failed and neither do the doctors who called it idiopathic nonischemic cardiomyopathy. Zach only knows he was healthy and then he was not. In between, he met the love of his life who he hopes to now walk down the aisle this fall.
“Now, my fiancé and I have a bright future together and I can’t wait to get married,” said Engelken.
Although VAD technology has been around for decades, the current VADs have only been a standard of care and a bridge to transplant for the past ten years.