Ventricular assist devices (VAD), which help patients bridge the gap between late-stage heart failure and transplant or buy patients time while their hearts heal from trauma or infection, have been available for adults since the 1990s. But with no pediatric devices, Children’s of Alabama pediatric cardiologist F. Bennett Pearce, M.D., who, at the time, worked under the umbrella of the the adult transplant program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB), tried to adapt adult VAD devices for adolescents and children as young as 12.
But the devices and hardware required to attach them to the failing heart were often too large to fit within a child’s smaller thoracic volume, and the blood capacity was so high the devices had to operate at a very low heart rate, increasing the risk of thrombosis.
That all changed when Pearce read an article about a new pediatric VAD, the Berlin Heart EXCOR, that was just entering clinical studies. He was on vacation at the time and when he returned immediately worked with the UAB team to ensure the university could join the trials.
Their first patient received the Berlin VAD in 2005, making UAB one of the first hospitals in the southeast to perform the surgery. A second child received it a year later. Both were highly successful, Pearce said. One child later received a transplant and the other recovered from myocarditis.
The results of that trial led to the device’s U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in 2011, and in 2012 investigators from UAB were among the authors of a landmark paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine reporting the results of the trial.
Since then, other devices have entered the market, and the pediatric ventricular support transplant advanced heart failure program moved to Children’s of Alabama where it has flourished. “We have a very experienced team on the pediatric cardiology heart failure side with experienced transplant coordinators, excellent surgeons, outstanding CVICU staff, and strong clinical research interests in pediatric circulatory support,” Pearce said. “That’s why it works so well today.”
Since 2001, 39 children, ranging from newborns to teenagers, most of whom are bridging to transplant, have received VADs; 27 since the program moved to Children’s. The success rates have improved over time, Pearce said, reflecting improvements in device technology, anticoagulation treatment and accumulated experience. “All patients supported in 2020 have had either successful bridge to transplant or recovery,” he said.
The children remain on the devices for weeks, months, “even close to a year,” Pearce said, often in the hospital. Even those who are discharged, however, require a high level of clinical support. Since many live hours away from Children’s, the team trains local clinicians, family and caregivers in the specialized support these patients need
The greatest advantage of our program, he said, “is that this kind of work, although intense, has the potential for tremendous satisfaction because of the often miraculous outcomes.”