Dorothy Perpich was 71 when she began a long voyage that deeply touched her heart, both physically and emotionally.
Now 82, Dorothy’s health is better than she ever imagined, thanks in large part to a battery-powered blood-pump device called an LVAD that UW Health doctors implanted in her chest several years ago. Today, Dorothy’s blood flows as freely as her spirits — but the journey getting to this point included several challenging hurdles.
It was June 2010 when Dorothy’s husband Bill was diagnosed with a fatal lung disease known as advanced idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The next day, Dorothy learned that she had breast cancer. Mortality was very quickly staring this couple — married for 47 years — right in the face.
“It was a shocking time,” Dorothy said. “Fortunately, we had tremendous support from our children, our friends and our church to help cushion the blow.”
Bill’s condition deteriorated over the next six months while Dorothy underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to treat her cancer. Sadly, in January 2011, just two weeks after she finished her radiation therapy, Bill passed away.
On the heels of losing her husband and her own exhaustive cancer treatment, Dorothy had to start putting one foot in front of the other without her lifelong partner. It turns out, however, that another medical storm was brewing for Dorothy, who — until her cancer diagnosis — was an active, healthy woman and an avid doubles tennis player.
“Not long before Bill died, I started losing stamina,” Dorothy said. “At first, it wasn’t much, but in time, it got to the point where I’d have to catch my breath after simply walking across the lawn."
Left heart failure diagnosis was a surprise
A mother of five and grandmother of 10 from De Pere, Wis,, Dorothy was ultimately diagnosed with left heart failure by a Green Bay cardiologist, Kendra Marsh-Kates, MD, of Prevea Health, known as “Dr. Marsh.”
“Dorothy was not a smoker and did not have a family history of heart disease,” Dr. Marsh said. “When our testing revealed no artery blockages or problems with heart function, we concluded that Dorothy’s weakening heart was essentially a side effect from one of her chemotherapy treatments.”
For the next five years, Dr. Marsh treated Dorothy with medication and, in time, a pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat. Unfortunately, Dorothy’s heart never rallied back to normal. She kept getting weaker, so Dr. Marsh called upon her colleagues from the UW Health Heart Failure team who regularly travel from Madison to Green Bay to provide care for those living in the Fox Valley.
Not ready to give up
“At 75, Dorothy had reached end-stage heart failure, but she wasn’t ready to give up,” said Dr. Marsh. “Heart transplant – one option for end-stage heart failure – wasn’t an option because transplants are rarely done on patients older than 70.”
After consulting with the UW Health cardiology team, Dr. Marsh arranged for Dorothy to be flown by helicopter to Madison for immediate evaluation.
“Fortunately, we had another option for Dorothy known as an LVAD, or a left ventricular assist device," said Ravi Dhingra, MD, director of the UW Health Heart Failure team. "It was Dorothy’s last resort, but we felt strongly it could give her several years of better-quality life.”
The LVAD, a surgically implanted battery-powered pump, takes over the job of the weakened left ventricle by continuously pumping blood through the aorta and out to the body. Although ventricular assist devices were first introduced in the 1960s, LVAD implantations became more widespread over the past 20 years.
Historically, LVAD’s were given to heart failure patients as a “bridge” to transplant, allowing them more time until a new heart became available. As the devices have gotten smaller, more durable and easier to implant, an increasing number of patients have received an LVAD permanently — something cardiologists describe as “destination therapy.” UW Health, in fact, is a leading regional LVAD implantation site and one of just three places where this procedure is done in Wisconsin.
“The current generation of LVADs has been very well received by patients,” Dr. Dhingra said. “About 75 percent of destination therapy patients are still living after two years with an LVAD, and many are living much longer.”
Although Dorothy was down to her final option for more life, she didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity when she first laid eyes on the LVAD.
“I was not sure I wanted that thing inside of me, but the chances were far greater I would live longer and better so I went ahead,” she said. On Oct. 27, 2015, Dorothy was taken to the operating room and the LVAD was implanted.
At the time, a cardiothoracic surgeon had to cut her breastbone open (similar to a heart bypass operation) to implant the device. Today, however, most patients have the procedure performed less invasively, resulting in reduced pain and faster recovery. Again, UW Health is a leader in providing this less invasive option.
Part of the LVAD — namely the control unit and battery pack — exists outside of the body. Most patients carry these small components around in a fanny pack or shoulder bag.
I just can’t say enough about the UW Health team,” Dorothy said. “Along with my friends, family and faith, the doctors and nurses there have been so caring and supportive.
More than five years have passed since Dorothy’s LVAD was implanted. In fact, following another hospitalization in Madison beginning in February 2021, Dorothy was given the option of stopping the LVAD because of the likelihood that her heart was now strong enough to pump without assistance. She agreed to try disconnecting the LVAD and thankfully, her heart has been working fine on its own.
Now 82, Dorothy is filled with spirit, joy and incredibly grateful to be alive. COVID-19 limited her usual volunteer work, yoga classes and gym workouts, but Dorothy still gets in plenty of walks and sees her adult children frequently. She also looks forward to resuming her cross-country travels with three women friends — an endeavor Dorothy jokingly refers to as the “Antique Roadshow.”
“Considering that she was at end-stage heart failure at 75, seeing Dorothy doing so well today at 82 is incredibly rewarding,” Dr. Marsh said. “Our experience working with the UW Health team has been tremendous and Dorothy is a living illustration of this partnership.”