Tiny heart pumps offer help and hope as heart failure advances, from the Harvard Heart Letter

Heart pumps the size of two D batteries offer hope, help, and more time for thousands of people with failing hearts who are enduring the long wait for a transplant or who aren't eligible for one. These small pumps, known as left ventricular assist devices, take over the work of the left ventricle, but don't replace it, explains the January 2011 issue of the Harvard Heart Letter.

A left ventricular assist device doesn't tie the user to bed or confine him or her to home. Instead, rechargeable batteries attached to a belt or worn in a vest power the pump for 10 hours or more, allowing the user to go to the store, dance, garden, travel, and do other normal mobile activities.

Although left ventricular assist devices seem to be just what the doctor ordered for thousands of people with advanced heart failure, they come with personal costs for the recipient and his or her family, and big financial costs for the health care system, cautions the Harvard Heart Letter. The price tag for one left ventricular assist device and its associated equipment, the operation to implant it, the week-long recovery time in the hospital, and the follow-up medical care is close to $200,000. How long the devices will work is another big uncertainty. Although one recipient lived with his for seven years, the average is likely to be less than that.

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