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Published on October 01, 2015

A New Life Thanks To LVAD

Tonya Moore

Tonya Moore

Tonya Moore is a native of Burlington and a graduate of Cummings High School. To folks who grew up with Tonya, she has also been a hard woman to keep up with. A tomboy by nature and a speed skater at heart, Tonya is used to running rings around her friends and family.

Early on, you might have seen Tonya cruising Main Street in her butterscotch MG which she drove all through high school. Other times, you could find her at the wheel of her Grampa’s tractor, working the big garden on her family’s farm.

At 18, Tonya married Neil, a college boy she fell in love with and her sweetheart for close to 30 years. By her mid-20s, Tonya had had two children – a daughter and a son – and was burning up the highways to the beach every chance she got. At 37, Tonya had a heart attack that went undiagnosed. Today, at 47, thanks to the battery-powered-pump attached to her heart, Tonya is full of life and still a hard woman to keep up with. The rest is her story…

Heart Disease in Women is Difficult to Discover – Tonya’s Case History:

Tanya and her family

“You guys (Cone Health) are home to me…and I want to be close to home. This is the kind of care I want.”

Tonya Moore

In the summer of 2006, after having been to the beach, Tonya woke up with terrible pain under her rib cage. She was already scheduled for gallbladder surgery, so she went to the local emergency center thinking it was a gallbladder attack. She was given a prescription to alleviate the pain and returned home. Given that gallbladder attacks were not usually associated with heart issues, no EKG was performed. Tonya went back to the beach a week later and after that had the gallbladder surgery.

By November 2006, Tonya was admitted to the hospital with double pneumonia and was on a ventilator for 9 days. Once she could breathe on her own again, her medical team identified there were issues with her heart.

Dr. Dan Bensimhon

Dr. Dan Bensimhon

In February 2007, Tonya met with Dr. Dan Bensimhon, a cardiologist at Cone Health Medical Group HeartCare, who scheduled a variety of tests. They found that Tonya’s left coronary artery was totally blocked. Her heart had gone without oxygen for so long the left side of her heart muscle had died. Options for arterial stents or by-pass surgery were out of the question and Tonya’s system would most likely reject a heart transplant.

From 2007-2013, Tonya and Dr. Bensimhon worked together to control her condition through use of an implanted defibrillator and medications. Five years later, in February 2013, Tonya could barely walk 20 feet. Her body was no longer tolerating any of the medications. Her blood pressure was so low it was hard for her to do anything – even taking a shower made her short of breath. Imagine feeling like you have the flu 24/7.

Dr. Bensimhon talked to Tonya about her options, including the opening of the new LVAD program at Cone Health, and suggested she think about it while taking a cruise to celebrate her 26th wedding anniversary and renew vows with Neil and the family. Tonya didn’t think about it for a second.

So, because you can’t swim with an LVAD, the medical team ‘tuned her up’ to go and enjoy the cruise, and the water, and got everything ready for her heart pump implant upon Tonya’s return.

When she got back in April, Dr. Bensimhon asked if Tonya was ready. To his surprise, Tonya said no. She had a few more things to do first. She wanted to see her son off to his junior prom. She wanted to support her daughter’s boyfriend as he was going off to boot camp. And, she wanted to see Jason Aldean in concert in Greensboro. She already had the tickets.

Cone Health – the first non-transplant health system in the state to offer LVAD Technology for Life

LVAD Explained

“With the advances made in heart pump technology, we now can offer hope to patients who need a heart transplant but otherwise wouldn’t get one. “ Peter Van Trigt, MD

On May 29, 2013, Tonya became Cone Health’s first LVAD patient. She remembers waking up the next day because her nose itched. Shortly after, she was able to walk from the bed to the door. Everyone expected Tonya to be in the hospital for one month. Tonya was out in two weeks.

“We don’t put a VAD in someone so they can lay on their couch and watch TV all day. We put them in so that they can enjoy their family and their life,” says Dr. Bensimhon.

Becoming the first non-transplant health system in the state to offer LVAD technology did not happen overnight. Development of the program began as early as 2012 with planning for the build-out of a new North Tower adjacent to Moses Cone Hospital and completion of a new hybrid OR capable of instantaneous imaging during cardiovascular surgeries, and with the build-up in personnel needed to operate the Cone Health Advanced Congestive Heart Failure Clinic under the direction of Dan Bensimhon, MD.

The process of building the program also required extensive commitment, training and education across multiple departments throughout the health system, not only for the cardiology team responsible for the ongoing care of the patient, but for the surgeon who would need to be skilled in the implantation and management of the device. Thanks to a unique shared program with Duke University Medical Center, Tonya’s cardiothoracic surgeon, Peter Van Trigt, MD, completed 10 LVAD implantations before bringing his skill and experience to Cone Health...and Tonya.

How Left Ventricular Assist Devices (LVADs) Work

A left ventricular assist device (LVAD) is a battery-powered implantable pump used to treat congestive heart failure patients. It helps an individual’s heart pump more blood and oxygen to the body, thus relieving the symptoms of congestive heart failure. With advanced pump technology, current LVADs are significantly more effective in treating heart failure than similar devices in the past.

Due to the growing number of heart failure patients throughout the country, LVADs are now being used as an effective treatment method not only for patients waiting for heart transplants (bridge therapy), but also for patients who have severe congestive heart failure but do not qualify for a transplant for a variety of reasons. LVADs have become a destination therapy.

Currently there are about 6 million people in the U.S. who have congestive heart failure, and of the several hundred thousand patients in need of a heart transplant, only about 5,000 individuals receive them each year.

Cone Health is the first community health system in NC to begin surgically implanting LVADs. Two years after Tonya’s implant, more than 20 patients have undergone the same procedure. Today, the LVAD team includes cardiovascular surgeons, cardiologists, a nurse practitioner and other related medical providers.

Once LVADs are implanted, each patient receives device care and management education, as well as a full complement of long-term follow-up by the heart failure clinic team who are committed to monitoring of each patient around the clock to ensure the patient’s health is maintained and their quality of life is preserved - even to the point of making available generators and transportation for patients who might lose power during storm outages.

The Cone Health Ventricular Assist Devices (VADS) team is led by Peter Van Trigt, MD. Dr. Van Trigt is the surgeon who performed Tonya’s implant surgery in May 2013. In 2014, Cone Health Heart and Vascular Center received full certification from The Joint Commission for its VAD program. Today, the Cone Health Heart and Vascular Center is one of only 12 programs nationwide to receive Top Honors, the prestigious 3 Star Rating across all performance measures, by the Society of Thoracic Surgery.

Dr. Van Trigt is a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon at Triad Cardiac & Thoracic Surgery and a member of the Cone Health Medical Group dedicated advanced congestive heart failure clinic team at Cone Health Heart and Vascular Center. Dr. Van Trigt earned his MD at Tulane University in 1977 and completed residencies in general and cardiothoracic surgery at Duke University School of Medicine. He completed a fellowship in cardiac transplantation at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and has more than 20 years of experience working with LVADs and similar pump therapies.

Tonya Wins 1st Place in the Battery-Powered Division

Tonya at 5K

Living with the LVAD is not easy. It’s something that you have to have with you at all times. It’s bulky. You can’t wear dresses. You have to carry extra batteries. But, it doesn’t stop you from living a full life.

During her summer of recovery from implant surgery, Tonya worked with Steven Way, an exercise physiologist who had received special training for working with LVAD patients. Within seconds of meeting Tonya, Steven knew he would need to stay on his toes to keep up with her.

As a challenge (and to keep her exercising), he suggested they work together to get her ready to participate in the Alamance Regional Legs for Life Wellness 5K to be held the following October. When Tonya told her medical team, everyone joined in, not only to support her, but to do it with her!

‘'It was amazing to see someone who could barely walk 20 feet, walk that 5K. We felt good that we were able to give her life back." says nurse practitioner Ali Cosgrove, a member of Tonya's care team.

"I walked beside her the whole way. To me, her physical accomplishments are important. But much more important are her emotional accomplishments. Before her VAD, she did not have the emotional strength to go out and try something like this," adds Bensimhon.

Life After the LVAD

Tonya at WomenHeartTonya at WomenHeart Conference

Tonya today is involved and positive, with a lot of life to live and give. She is a true advocate for women with heart disease and tireless at working to inform others of ways to take care of themselves and prevent heart failure.

"Tonya is out more. She has a purpose. She is the spokesperson and coordinator for support groups for women with heart disease. I take her to talks with me and she stands up and gives presentations from her heart – her real heart. The VAD has grown her in a lot of ways other than strengthening her system," says Dr. Bensimhon.

Cosgrove adds, "Being able to put her on the pump has allowed her to be able to attend things. It has given her quality of life back."

Always mischievous, Tonya does whatever she wants these days. She’s gone sledding, skating, traveling and even goes into the water up to an imaginary line once marked on her ankle by Dr. Bensimhon - anything "just to have fun and get their (her medical team’s) blood pressures up."

But she gives it all back in time as a member of the Cone Health Patient and Family Advisory Council, as a co-coordinator of the Cone Health LVAD patient support group, and in her new roles as: WomenHeart Champion and Support Network Coordinator for Cone Health HeartSisters and WomenHeart of the Piedmont-Triad, and as the South Atlantic District Support Leader for the National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease.

Tonya has been a stained glass artist since 1998. She created lighthouse piece for her father (because he loved them) that can still be seen at their ancestral home in Burlington.

Tonya is a collector of pigs in all colors, shapes and sizes – in their home and outside.

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