Unexpected illness leaves Spokane man land-locked with a mechanical heart

Unexpected illness leaves Spokane man land-locked with a mechanical heart

By age 30, Jeremy White of Deer Park had traveled to 15 countries.

Today, the 33-year-old White never ventures farther than a six-hour drive from Spokane while awaiting a phone call, one telling him to go in for a heart transplant. Until that day, he lives with a surgically implanted left ventricle assist device, necessary to pump the blood to his body.

His medical journey began June 2015 following routine surgery in Spokane to replace cartilage in a knee because of arthritis. He’d just returned from a trip to Egypt, but soon after the surgery, he experienced chest pains and had difficulty breathing.

“It had been an underlying condition and hadn’t become systematic until added stress was put on the body from knee surgery,” White said. “The doctors think it was some kind of viral infection.”

“It could have been as simple as a common cold, but in my case, that virus went to my heart and harmed my heart. It was just an unlucky event.”

After being admitted to the emergency room, his doctors were puzzled about why a healthy, athletic person would have such a serious heart issue, as White’s condition rapidly declined to the point of end-stage heart failure. Implanting the LVAD required a nine-hour surgery.

“More or less in my case, the left side couldn’t pump enough blood out to support life,” he said. “The organs would have started to shut down.”

The left ventricle is the large, muscular chamber of the heart that pumps blood out to the body. A left ventricular assist device is a battery-operated, mechanical pump-type device that helps maintain the pumping ability of a heart that can’t effectively work on its own.

The device is sometimes called a “bridge to transplant,” according to the American Heart Association. People awaiting a heart transplant often must wait a long time before a suitable heart organ becomes available. White is on a list to receive a heart transplant at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, when a donor heart is matched.

Although he is less active today because of his health, White works from home to create and publish a series of online classes, with subjects ranging from wilderness survival to backpacking for beginners and emergency preparedness.

Before his heart issues, White trained with the Spokane County Search and Rescue and did some volunteering for the organization. An outdoor enthusiast, he did mountain climbing and backpacking. He once climbed Mount Rainier.

He currently teaches wilderness survival classes once a week for students, ages 11-15, at Deer Park Home Link, a cooperative home-school program. The classes include a few field trips into nearby woods but mostly classroom work.

“When I get my heart and have more energy, I want to take them on longer hikes,” White said.

This year, White also is serving as the Spokane Heart and Stroke Walk co-chair, an annual fundraiser that this year starts 10 a.m. Saturday at the Student Academic Center on the Washington State University Spokane campus near downtown. Up to 1,000 walkers are expected.

A soft-spoken man, White patiently describes his heart condition but also easily laughs about medical facts, like explaining that he doesn’t have a traditional pulse that’s felt at the wrist.

“Because the pump controls the outflow of my blood, I don’t have a pulse anymore, which is really odd,” he said. “The pump I have is like a little paddle wheel for moving the blood. To check my pulse, they have a machine, a Doppler, that can listen to my blood flowing through my arteries.”

“Isn’t that weird, life without a pulse? When they told me that, I said, ‘What? You’re kidding?’ Going through this, you have to laugh about stuff.”

He wears a bag with a strap across a shoulder that contains the device’s batteries and has a digital read-out on the device’s functions, including liters of blood pumped per minute. A power cable goes into his stomach and then up to his mechanical heart pump.

“I’m worth over a million dollars,” he said, pointing to his chest with a smile. “I still have my heart in there, but the mechanical part, it’s actually sewn into the left side of my heart.”

White did much of his traveling while in college studying international business, living a semester in Madrid, but never stopped going abroad whenever he could. Visits took him to Morocco, Peru and Portugal. He also lived in Hawaii for a year up to 2014, where he led scuba diving tours.

He rode camels near pyramids in Egypt. For a 2013 trip, he ran with the bulls in Spain. “That had my heart pumping. I’ve never ran so fast in my life.”

“My passport was stamped up pretty good,” he said. “I tried to make the most of the life I was given. I traveled one place and that made me want to travel again. It was a passion for living and not looking back on my life and saying’ ‘All I did was work for 40 years.’ ”

Spending childhood years in New England, he and his family came to Washington state by his high school years. After school and a college degree in business management, he worked for a while in Seattle doing business development work but returned to the Spokane area near family in 2010.

“I have a construction background as well, so I went back to construction projects. I would do a project, work hard when the work was available. Then I’d have time in between jobs, and I’d go somewhere.”

White is optimistic he’ll get a heart transplant, although the timing is uncertain.

“You could get a call today or in another year, or even a couple of years. You just don’t know. That’s the hard part, not knowing. I’m positive it will happen eventually.”

“The hardest things about all this is the loss of who I was and my lifestyle; it just completely changed. Also, I’ve been told by my doctors it was especially hard for me to go through this change because it happened so suddenly and I was so active before.”

He doesn’t really want to be outside the United States now because of his medical condition.

“If you are too far away, then they’ll just go to the next person on the list,” White said. “Going outside the country can be an issue because if you need medical attention, they may not know much about a mechanical heart.”

Today, his life moves at a slower pace. He finds himself out of breath and energy quickly. He recently spent 11 days in the hospital because of a blood clot. Doctors were able to dissolve it using a clot-busting drug through an IV.

“I got lucky because a lot of time they have to go in and replace the pump and there’s another open-heart surgery. They were able to dissolve the clot; there is some risk that scared me, but I made it through that.”

In Washington state, the American Hearth Association is funding almost $5 million in research projects to enhance knowledge about cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

White said he wants to help the American Heart Association and its Heart Walk because of the research it supports benefiting himself and others dealing with heart issues. In his case, it helped develop modern solutions for his pacemaker, defibrillator and mechanical heart.

He plans to walk Saturday if his health permits.

“I walked it last year, but this year my energy is lower; my endurance is lower,” he said. “But I’m going to give it the best shot I can. We’ll have a good time, nonetheless.”