Standing in Vincent’s hospital room you can hear his heart beat. It makes a loud sloshing noise. It’s not his real heart. That’s pretty much dead. The noise is the sound of his temporary mechanical heart. If you stand close to Vincent you can see his body twitch with each artificial beat. One hundred beats per minute, not one more, not one less.
Since September 4, 2011, Vincent has been kept alive by a mechanical heart—a Berlin heart. He’s celebrated Christmas in hospital; he celebrated New Year’s in hospital; he celebrated his 15th birthday in hospital.
He’s been waiting and waiting for a heart transplant operation. The donor heart might come from any one of a number of provinces. He is at the top of a pan-Canadian transplant list. So far, nothing.
This doesn’t discourage his health care team who are extremely optimistic that a heart will become available if not today, then maybe tomorrow. Children in need of heart transplants with his blood group wait, on average, six months to one year for the heart to become available.
It all began when Vincent was three months old. He caught a virus that attacked his heart. His heart has been in slow decline ever since. In doctor speak, the adenovirus caused a myocarditis infection of the heart. For many years the symptoms were mild. Vincent was followed closely in cardiology by Dr. Luc Jutras and the cardiology team at the Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre (MCH).
The situation changed dramatically in the spring of 2011. Vincent was in full blown heart failure. For the first time he had to come into the intensive care unit (ICU) for treatment. Medications helped for a while, but by fall it was clear his heart was giving out. His heart was beating a mile a minute, but it didn’t have enough strength to pump the blood.
In September, a team of medical specialists conferred and decided to put Vincent on a mechanical heart.
It didn’t go well. There were all kinds of complications: bleeding, blood clots, kidney failure. He was in and out of surgery three times. He was also emaciated. He weighed only 26 kilograms. It was touch and go a few times.
Then Vincent started to make slow and steady gains. Today, he has put on a good 20 kilos. He walks around the hospital and lifts weights in the physiotherapy room. His trusty mechanical heart is always in tow. It is the size of a small shopping cart.
He’s had some famous visitors including members of his favourite band Simple Plan, a bunch of players from the Montreal Canadiens and Anthony Calvillo of the Montreal Alouettes.
Rumour has it that the MCH teachers used to go easy on him, but not any more. He even has homework. He keeps in touch with his friends via Facebook and a few drop in to keep him company. He’s even gone outside a few times to see his dog Max, a Doberman.
The goal is to get him as healthy as possible for when his new, slightly used heart arrives. “The medical challenges are less now. We’re just waiting,” says Dr. Samara Zavalkoff, a PICU physician and one of Vincent’s primary caregivers. “What is most crucial at this time is to keep Vincent’s mood elevated and keep him motivated. He’s bored. Who can blame him? His only outing is to other floors in the hospital. No matter how much he likes the team in the PICU and we like him, we’re not his friends. His friends are at school. It isn’t a normal life for a 15 year old.”
Looking forward to the day when the new heart arrives, Vincent admits, “It will be weird when the mechanical heart is removed. I plan to keep it as a souvenir.”
Dr. Zavalkoff looks forward to that day too. “I often think about the moment when his heart arrives. I’ve gone over in my head how we’ll tell him and his parents. I figure the moment I walk in to his room, they’ll see it on my face right away.”
“Just about every department and service at the MCH has been involved in Vincent’s care,” says Samara Zavalkoff, PICU intensivist and one of Vincent’s primary care givers. “From the PICU to cardiology and cardiac surgery and the perfusionists. There is also nutrition, social services, psychology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, education services, child life, music therapy, nephrology, ophthalmology and the clowns. There’s a reason I’m not leaving anyone out. Every single member of that team is crucial including, most important, Vincent and his parents. Today, the most important person is the nutritionist, tomorrow it might be social services. Take away any one member and Vincent would not be where he is today.”
According to data published by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), 2,103 solid organ transplants were performed in Canada in 2010 (11 more than 2009) thanks to 1,022 organ donors (living and deceased). There were 135 Canadians awaiting a heart transplant in 2010. Unfortunately, 22 people died while waiting.
Just before this issue went to press The Montreal Children’s Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre announced that 15-year old Vincent Lambert underwent a heart transplant operation in mid-June. Within a week, Vincent was talking, walking around, and reconnecting with his friends on Facebook.
Vincent’s health care team at the MCH is focusing on his recovery and he will be monitored closely in the coming months as he returns to the MCH for follow-up appointments.
Vincent’s parents Alain Lambert and Lyne Chabot want to thank the family of the donor for their courageous decision, which led to their son’s heart transplant operation. Their prayers are with this family. They are also truly grateful to the many people from all over Canada who sent messages of support to Vincent after hearing his story of waiting for a new heart.
If you want to help children like Vincent, be sure to sign your organ donor card or register as an organ donor.