Heart patient's legacy remembered by doctors, family

·6 min read

Sep. 3—FAIRMONT — Seven years ago, Farmington resident John Woods took a chance that extended his life, and the lives of others.

In 2015, Woods was in bad shape. His eyes often bloodshot, normal activities became too strenuous, and his heart was on the brink of giving out. His last hope was a heart transplant but being 71-years-old with late-stage heart failure, the chances of getting on the transplant list were slim.

So, he took a chance. At the time, Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh was participating in a new, state-of-the-art clinical trial for a heart pump called HeartMate 3, a left ventricular assist device.

In 2015, HeartMate 3 had just entered clinical trials to improve upon the HeartMate 2, but it was a gamble since the doctors didn't have all the data to know if the new model would be an improvement over its predecessor.

Woods took the chance. Before the treatment, Woods wasn't expected to make it through the year, but the LVAD treatment was estimated to give him six more years with his family, he got seven.

Woods passed away from his heart condition three weeks ago, but those seven extra years he was given are a testament to his bravery and to modern cardiology.

A new lease on life

Woods' family recalled the stark difference in Woods before and after the LVAD was installed. His younger sister, Gloria Turner, remembers fondly the weeks after he started the treatment.

"It improved him so much. He was so weak all the time and at the rate it wouldn't have been long before we lost him," Turner said. "It improved him all the way around. He was able to spend more time with his wife, his kids and he could go out and see people."

Personal connections were where Woods got his energy. Always telling jokes and being sarcastic, it was hard not to smile when he was around.

Even while he endured with his own condition, Woods gave advice to others, helped others and never stopped being dependable. His daughter, Rhonda Bayles, also saw the change soon after the treatment began.

"It gave him a new lease on life. His heart was failing, and he had exhausted all his other options," Bayles said. "He was able to continue living. Seeing people and interacting with them was very important to him."

But the people who Woods may have had the most impact on are others who faced similar conditions and situations. Turner said every time she goes in for a procedure she thinks of her brother.

"He was my right arm a lot of times. I still think of John when I have to go in for my own treatments," Turner said, who has heart troubles of her own. "Whenever I go in, I think to myself, 'If John could do it, I can too.'"

Facing the unknown

Turner isn't the only one to find solace in Woods' bravery. HeartMate 3 has become a staple in many situations where patients either don't qualify for a heart transplant or have to wait until a donor is available.

Woods was the first patient in West Virginia and Pennsylvania to agree to the clinical trial. Because of his commitment to a gamble of a treatment, others in similar situations have been offered peace of mind that the treatment can have life-saving impact.

Dr. Manreet Kanwar is the medical director of the LVAD and cardiac transplant programs at Allegheny General Hospital and cared for Woods for the last several years of his life.

"[Woods] was at his seven-years mark which is really remarkable when you've been given a diagnosis of end-stage heart failure," Kanwar said. "To have a machine that offers years of support, and a fairly decent quality of life is quite amazing."

The LVAD treatment itself is quite amazing. A pump is attached to the left ventricle and helps the heart move blood throughout the body. A cord is run out of the body through the abdomen and attached to an exterior battery pack that is worn by the patient.

Like a heart transplant, the LVAD is used as a last resort in cases like Woods'. Since 2015, the field of cardiology has made tremendous progress, but Kanwar said that many patients get into care far too late, when preventative care could have saved their hearts.

Yet there have still been shifts made since Woods had his surgery. Medicines have gotten better and more accessible, strategies have improved, and techniques have become safer and more efficient.

However, there always room to grow.

"In the last decade we've seen major movements forward. The problem I still see is not realizing a patient is going through heart failure and not implementing these strategies," Kanwar said. "Despite all these advances, most patients are not on top of therapies."

West Virginia and heart disease

According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, West Virginia is first in the nation for prevalence of heart attack and coronary heart disease and seventh in the nation for prevalence of stroke.

The history of West Virginia and heart disease is long, but much of it stems from smoking and unhealthy habits. Dr. George Sokos is the associate chief of cardiology with WVU Medicine, and he said smoking is a key component to poor heart health.

"Smoking is a huge factor and we have one of the highest smoking rates in the country. Twenty-five percent of our population smokes," Sokos said. "That really puts our population at risk for coronary disease and other heart disease."

In addition, West Virginia also has a high rate of diabetes, which is linked to many heart problems.

But there are warning signs at the onset of heart trouble. According to Sokos, struggling to do usual daily activities can be an indicator something is wrong. Needing to take breaks more often or having a shortness of breath while doing menial tasks like raking leaves or carrying groceries can be a symptom of a larger problem.

Chest pain moving up the arm and jaw can be early signs as well. Usually, heart problems start with a gradual decline and can end up culminating in something catastrophic such as a heart attack.

Preventative measures are easy to do, however. Parking farther from the entrance of the grocery store for a few extra steps or opting for the stairs rather than the elevator can add up.

Woods' legacy

If there's one thing Woods' family hopes people take away from the last several years of his life, it's that hope is always there, and there's always help no matter how grim the outlook.

Seven years ago, Woods took a leap that pioneered a treatment for others and has given many an extended life. His legacy will be one of placing others above self.

"We can't move the field forward if we don't have people like John agreeing to participate in a trial," Kanwar said. "If him and others like him didn't participate in these trials, we wouldn't have these treatments. [John] was one of the first to agree to participate and in that, he thought above himself."

Reach David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at dkirk@timeswv.com.