Donald’s Story: Back To Life With CardioMEMS

Only a year ago, Donald Cortner's life was severely limited by struggles with end-stage heart failure. He could barely breathe or walk, and his legs were swollen. He couldn't seem to stay out of the hospital, and he had been removed from a heart transplant list because of complications with his liver.

“I didn't think I had much longer to live,” Cortner confesses.

So it was especially joyful when he recently celebrated his 71st birthday with his five children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Cortner gives all the credit to his medical team at the Premier Health Heart Failure Clinic — and a dime-sized pressure-sensing device known as the CardioMEMS™ system.

When Cortner was first seen by the Heart Failure Clinic in June 2020, he had recently lost his wife, Luvenia Horton-Cortner. He had been hospitalized eight times during the previous 14 months. A palliative drip stabilized his heart failure, but Cortner found the central line — inserted into his chest — uncomfortable and embarrassing. He rarely felt like leaving the house.

“Donald felt that it restricted his activities and labeled him as sick,” says Mckenzie Mason, who coordinates his care in her role as an advance practice nurse for the Heart Failure Clinic.

Mason prescribed a higher dosage of water pills to reduce the excessive fluid on his lungs. “It's a delicate balance, because you don't want to cause kidney failure,” she says.

Then she suggested an innovative solution: an emerging technology, the CardioMEMS device, which is implanted directly into the pulmonary artery. The sensor measures blood flow pressure, heart rate, and lung pressure.

“The CardioMEMS device would allow me to be more aggressive with Donald's medication, knowing that he is stable,” Mason says.

Srikanth Sadhu, MD, implanted the CardioMEMS device Jan. 29, 2021, during a simple procedure that took less than an hour — the first of its kind for Premier Health. The device is inserted through a vein in the groin, traveling through the heart's right ventricle to be implanted in the left pulmonary artery. It's typically an outpatient procedure requiring only a four- or five-hour hospitalization.

Since the procedure, Cortner's heart failure symptoms have improved from Class IV — in which patients grow out of breath from merely sitting in a chair — to Class II, when they can resume many normal daily activities.

“The CardioMEMS is like having an access to echocardiogram 24/7, wherein one needs to lie on a special pillow at home to wirelessly send the lung artery pressures to the treatment team,” explains Dr. Sadhu, an interventional cardiologist with the Premier Health Cardiovascular Institute. “Lung pressures are known to rise days in advance of symptoms. When we know the lung pressures are going in the wrong direction, we can adjust the patient's medication and reduce the risk of hospitalization.”

That's exactly what happened with Cortner, who has had only two scheduled hospitalizations since the CardioMEMS device was implanted. “I was tired of being in and out of the hospital,” Cortner says. “Getting the procedure made a 100 percent difference in my quality of life.”

He can cook his own meals and take a ride on his Harley-Davidson three-wheeler. He feels stronger, more fit. He even met his fiancee, Diane Byrd, last fall while taking his brother's ballroom dance class. “A year ago, I wouldn't have been able to attempt that class,” he says. “So my team at the Heart Failure Clinic did lead me to Diane. She's my guardian angel; she's my blessing.”

Despite his initial hesitation, Cortner highly recommends the CardioMEMS device to other patients in his situation. “I was terrified, but Mckenzie took away all my fears that this wasn't going to work. She just talked to me and gave me literature to read.”

The retired carpenter and sheet metal worker now can truly enjoy his retirement. He relishes the time he can spend playing with his grandchildren in the backyard of his Englewood home and taking them for walks in the park without becoming short of breath.

“I probably would have died if it weren't for the procedure and for God,” Cortner says. “I guess God doesn't want me just yet. Maybe I'm still here so I can help somebody else.”

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Every moment of your life depends on a strong, healthy heart. The Premier Health cardiology and vascular services team is here to help you, each beat of the way, with prevention, diagnostic, treatment, and rehabilitation services in our hospitals, outpatient centers, and medical offices across Southwest Ohio.