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A Heart-Warming Story

Determination, motivation and the competent and caring staff of Torrance Memorial Medical Center's Heart Failure Program turned life around for Harvey Kushner. The 82-year-old heart failure patient is a living testament to the advances in modern medicine and the power of love to transform an individual's health.

While in his 50s, Kushner experienced a heart attack that required a stent in one of his main arteries. In his mid-70s, he was diagnosed at Torrance Memorial with several blocked arteries and various complicated cardiology issues, requiring him to have coronary bypass and valve surgery.

In time, his heart muscle function continued to deteriorate, and he required an internal defibrillator. Eventually, he reached the point where medical therapy was no longer working, and Mark Lurie, MD, director, program development for the Torrance Memorial Lundquist Cardiovascular Institute, referred him for a heart transplant at age 77.

“I didn’t expect that I would get selected,” reveals Kushner. “It also didn’t make sense to me that I should get a transplant priority over a younger person.” So he opted off the transplant list, and Dr. Lurie kept him functioning on heart medications. This worked well for a few years.

Then he again experienced several episodes of heart failure that landed him in Torrance Memorial for a few days at a time. At 78—with his list of cardiology problems—many patients might have simply given up.

Instead Kushner geared up for a referral by Dr. Lurie to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he’d have a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) implanted in his heart to take over its function. His recovery from surgery was long, painful and complicated, keeping him at Cedars-Sinai for almost four months.

When he arrived at Torrance Memorial’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, Debbie Carlton, a nurse with the Heart Failure and Cardiac Rehab programs, says “he stepped up on the treadmill with a nurse on either side and was so weak, he dropped to his knees.”

As many people who return to the gym after a long hiatus can testify, getting back in shape is not easy—even for a young, healthy individual. For a senior citizen, returning after a difficult heart surgery to health and vigor is that much more daunting—especially after four months in bed.

His wife, Patricia Sacks, MD, medical director of Torrance Memorial’s Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Breast Diagnostic Center, gave encouragement and love that was deeply inspiring to Kushner. “She’s always cooking me nutritious meals,” he says tenderly. “Her complaint is I don’t eat them. She is my best medicine as well as my best friend and medical advisor.”

The Heart Failure Program had the staff, resources and know-how to help bring Kushner back to health and vitality. “Torrance Memorial has very, very caring nurses,” says Kushner. “A hospital is much more than a building. What makes it effective are the people who work there.”

When Kushner dropped to his knees on the treadmill, Carlton remembers that the nurses helped him up, and he bravely took a few more steps. “He came three times a week to cardiac rehab, and each day he would do a little more,” she says. “Since LVAD patients don’t have a pulse or blood pressure, nurses put an EKG monitor on him while he exercised. They watched him frequently and asked him how he felt.”

Kushner was in the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program for less than a year. During this time, program staff educated him on how to live a healthy lifestyle, how to take his medications and what to eat. They monitored him while he exercised and gave him tools to return to an independent lifestyle.

Eating healthy, exercising, managing stress and avoiding smoking are some of the preventative measures for cardiology issues. Genetics also plays a role.

Kushner started with atherosclerotic heart disease, which is a major risk factor for future heart failure. Other conditions that can increase the risk of future heart failure are hypertension, or high blood pressure, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

The encouraging news about modern medicine—medication and devices that help the heart function properly—is that it’s not too late to change one’s lifestyle to prevent continued cardiac problems. Improving overall quality of life and preventing heart failure exacerbation and hospital readmissions are the goals of Torrance Memorial’s Heart Failure Program.

A multidisciplinary team of physicians and nurses, pharmacists and social workers helps patients both in and out of the hospital develop a tailored, customized lifestyle plan. The team equips the patient and family with the resources needed to transition safely back home. They provide education and support in heart failure and medication management using personalized education, resource materials and support groups for emotional well-being.

As it was in Kushner’s case, the patient’s family often plays a vital role in supporting the patient’s return to health. The program gives the family tools to help the patient with heart failure.

Torrance Memorial’s Heart Failure Program, which is made possible through the Richard and Melanie Lundquist Cardiovascular Institute, received the Gold award in both 2012 and 2013, a top honor given by the American Heart Association for adhering to their Get With The Guidelines–Heart Failure program.

Change is difficult for most of us. Whether we want to lose weight, quit smoking or start exercising, it requires significant motivation. “You can’t really motivate people; you have to help them find their own motivation,” says Carlton.

Kushner was a patient who found his own motivation and worked very hard to return to a functioning and independent lifestyle. He now walks his dog twice a day for several miles and participates in a Pilates class in his community.

For some patients, the Heart Failure Program may help extend their life long enough for family to spend more time with them before saying goodbye. Roxanna Balter, nurse practitioner and manager of the Heart Failure Program, remembers receiving a thank-you letter from a former patient’s daughter. The daughter attributes Torrance Memorial to extending her mother’s life an extra year and a half—long enough for her to develop more memories with Mom and say goodbye.

Heart failure may not always be obvious. A patient may present with other symptoms, but since heart failure is very prevalent, nurses in all departments at Torrance Memorial are provided with heart failure education.

“Even women after delivering babies can go into heart failure. You have to treat the whole patient. You can’t just treat their fractured hip or postpartum issues,” explains Carlton.

The Heart Failure Program has demonstrated that it has an aggressive goal of helping every heart failure patient return to as normal a lifestyle as possible. Combine a motivated patient with a first-class hospital and a heavy sprinkling of love … and you’ll find a success story like Harvey Kushner’s.

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