“Life is full of challenges and your attitude can make all the difference,” said Kathy Bentley, one of the trailblazers of UR Medicine’s TeleVAD Program. After experiencing congestive heart failure, she’s one of the many people in New York State who have received a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD).
The high-tech device was implanted in her chest in February 2020, right before the pandemic began. Regular monitoring is needed to ensure the device is functioning appropriately and supporting her heart. But the commute to Strong Memorial Hospital, which is home to Upstate New York’s only comprehensive advanced heart failure and transplant program, meant that she would have to take a full day off to get the care she needed. She is happy to cut that ride in half thanks to a new hybrid telemedicine program UR Medicine offers in Batavia and Hornell.
“I don’t know how many miles it takes to travel from Andover to Rochester, but it’s only 20 minutes to get to Hornell versus an hour and a half to Rochester,” Bentley said. “For a quick visit to check my equipment, they can do everything from Hornell!”
She visits the heart failure team at the St. James Medical Office Building in Hornell.
People living with LVADs need routine monitoring, especially in the first year. Given the condition, it’s vital that patients see their cardiologists for check-ups on a regular basis, sometimes up to nine times in the first year after receiving an LVAD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 6.2 million American adults are coping with heart failure and it accounted for 13 percent of deaths in 2018. These pumps are implanted to support the heart function of people suffering from advanced heart failure. Once it is implanted into the chest, it’s supported by an external battery that helps the heart pump blood throughout the body.
Strong Hospital is one of the busiest centers in the country for LVAD surgery and management. The program began in 2001 and to date, more than 819 people have received the devices.
“There are a growing number of patients supported by an LVAD around the country, but patients often travel long distances to see their LVAD physicians, advanced practice providers and nurses,” explained cardiologist Hima Vidula, M.D. “With the TeleVAD Program, we are able to bring specialized care much closer to the patient.”
That’s why UR Medicine created the TeleVAD program last year. Bentley and many other patients in the southern region travel to the Hornell location, where a specially-equipped exam room allows patients to see their physicians at Strong via video. Meanwhile, a nurse in the room checks their blood pressure with an ultrasound device and connects the LVAD to a monitor. This hybrid model of telemedicine allows providers to analyze the information remotely from Rochester and change LVAD settings and medications if necessary from dozens of miles away. This program cuts travel time for patients who live in the southern region and Buffalo area by more than two hours on average.
“Even my primary care physician doesn’t have some of the materials that the remote location has, so it’s nice to have people trained to help,” Bentley explained. “The appointments save travel time and made me feel safer during the pandemic.”
“The unique aspect to this program is the comprehensive visits,” Vidula explained. “Everything we do in an in-person clinic, we do here. Patients are very satisfied with the program.”
Bentley said it’s the convenience of the Hornell location that has really helped her.
“I feel very comfortable, even with the nurses who are helping and getting hooked up to the equipment,” she said. “Whether it’s a TeleVAD appointment or a regular one, it’s all about communication between you and your provider.”
But that doesn’t mean recovering was easy for Bentley. After receiving the LVAD, she had to strengthen her legs and struggled walking even short distances.
“It was hard not being able to walk distances that I could do with ease before,” Bentley said, “But from the nurses to the staff in LVAD, they just gave me one big pick-me-up after another. I remember when I was able to climb a set of four steps and I felt like I had won a gold medal.”
Now, Bentley is back at work and has developed a routine with her LVAD that already feels like second nature. She explained that she’s been able to tackle new challenges thanks to all she’s been through.
“You’ve got to keep a good sense of humor with how life is,” Bentley said. “I don’t see myself as an ’LVAD’ person. I see myself just like I’ve always been.”