Heart device saves 24-year-old’s life

Tara Townsend, once in heart failure, has a heart device to help pump blood. Townsend, of White Bear Lake. has a busy schedule pursuing a degree in human services at Century College and working in Shoreview. (Linda Baumeister/Bulletin)

Jill Yanish
Bulletin staff

In attempt to escape the sweltering summer, Minnesotans take refuge in lakes and pools.

However, Tara Townsend, a 24-year old from White Bear Lake, can’t enjoy this cooling relief  -- she can’t get wet.

Nor can the Century College student engage in contact sports, go through metal detectors or lift more than 25 pounds.

Defying heart failure

Townsend lives with a left ventricular assist device, basically a mechanical pump placed inside the chest to help the heart pump blood to the rest of the body. It’s not an “artificial heart” but a device that pushes blood from the left ventricle -- which receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs -- into the aorta. The device was implanted 2 1/2 years ago when Townsend’s heart failed.

This LVAD has lifestyle stipulations, but it comes with a significant bonus -- it’s enabled her to live.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have it,” Townsend said. “I probably would have only lived a couple of months.”

The device has allowed her to resume her life. She‘s pursuing a degree in human services at Century and works at Fresh and Natural Foods in Shoreview.

“She’s got to be one of the strongest people I know to go through everything she’s gone through and still show up for work,” said Tiffany Schmitz-Velez, cashier manager at Fresh and Natural Foods.

But it hasn’t been an easy battle.

A lifelong battle

Townsend was born with aortic stenosis, a heart condition in which the aortic valve does not fully open, resulting in decreased blood flow from the heart.

She fought the disease with cardiac medications and a few lifestyle restrictions until November 2010, when her heart couldn’t take it any longer.

During the fall of her first-year at Mankato State University, Townsend experienced shortness of breath, swelling of her feet and ankles and abnormal tiredness. She sought medical attention and received a devastating diagnosis: she was in heart failure.

Townsend’s options were limited to a heart transplant or LVAD implantation. The LVAD held a more promising outlook at thattime, her LVAD coordinator Shawn Roerick, a registered nurse clinician at University of Minnesota, Fairview, said.

Townsend underwent surgery to implant the device at the University of Minnesota, Fairview, bringing her number of cardiac surgeries to four.

Although she had some tribulations during the 2 1/2 years of having the LVAD, including a stroke and inflammation of her heart’s lining, she’s been able to maintain a relatively normal life and views her situation with optimism.

“I feel better,” Townsend said. “My health is improving.”

Townsend lives with her parents and relies on them for minor medical care, such as changing the dressing that covers the LVAD drive line. The LVAD runs on batteries, located in an external pump that Townsend needs to recharge every 4 to 6 hours.

Roerick is impressed with the results.

Was ‘gravely sick’

“Meeting her at the time of (considering) the pump, she was very gravely sick,” he said. “After the surgery, she had some complications and had a long recovery phase. To see her today  -- taking classes and working and becoming more independent -- I think is nothing short of phenomenal.”

Throughout the life-long battle with her heart condition, Townsend has remained positive.

“Tara has been, in my opinion, a very stoic individual, and there’s an amazing resiliency about her,” Roerick said.  “Sometimes when we’re talking to her, we’re painting a pretty negative picture and it doesn’t even faze her.”

A LVAD is not typically used as a long-term resource, Roerick said. The average LVAD duration of support is 3 to 5 years, he said.

Townsend said a heart transplant is still an option in her future. But for now, her LVAD is working, and she’s hopeful that it will last for a while.

Jill Yanish can be reached at jyanish@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7825.


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