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Heart pump offers Eugene man ‘complete turnaround’

OHSU has implanted six ventricular assist devices since January 2020
man on a fourwheel work gator, with chainsaw, working in garden
Dennis Surmon of Eugene, Oregon at his home in May 2020. Surmon was the first OHSU patient to receive a heart pump after the universitys Heart Failure and Transplant Program reactivated in August 2019. (Photo courtesy Dennis Surmon)

Dennis Surmon says he has experienced “a complete turnaround” following years of exhaustion due to congestive heart failure.

His energy rebounded after Jan. 8, when an Oregon Health & Science University surgeon implanted a ventricular assist device, or an electromechanical heart pump known as a VAD, in his chest.

“I’m not tired all the time, I’m not huffing and puffing, I’m not retaining water,” said Surmon, 74, of rural Eugene. “On sunny days, now I’m out working in the yard, mowing, pruning and just puttering around. I’m able to function again.”

Surmon was the first OHSU patient to receive a heart pump after the university’s Heart Failure and Transplant Program reactivated in August 2019. Six OHSU patients have since had VAD implants without complications.

Surmon of Eugene, Oregon Surmon wears a vest that holds the batteries operating his heart pump. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

Ventricular assist devices help circulate blood in weakened hearts. Powered by externally worn batteries, the heart-pumping devices deliver blood from the heart’s lower chambers to the rest of the body.

“Ventricular assist devices offer a much-needed option for patients with serious heart issues when other treatments are no longer working,” said Johannes Steiner, M.D., assistant professor of medicine (cardiovascular medicine) in the OHSU School of Medicine and the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Institute’s medical director of mechanical circulatory support. “We are thrilled to see Mr. Surmon’s recovery and are proud to have helped him get back to living his life.”

The retired teacher, construction worker and commercial trucker driver’s heart troubles began when he had two heart attacks at age 46. In his early 60s, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and had a pacemaker implanted. Surmon retired early when he was no longer eligible for a commercial driver’s license.

Things took a turn for the worse in August 2019, when he began to experience quick, abnormal heart rhythms called atrial fibrillation. Prescription medications weren’t working well, prompting him to seek a second opinion from OHSU on Dec. 19, 2019. He ended up being hospitalized that same day.

Surmon was prescribed new medications to reduce fluid that had built up in his lungs due to his poorly working heart. But the OHSU cardiology team determined his only long-term solution was a ventricular assist device.

Before Surmon could have a VAD implanted, however, he needed to gain weight and build enough strength to survive the surgery. He went home for two weeks and returned in early January. After a few days of being further stabilized at OHSU, Surmon underwent surgery on Jan. 8.

The surgery, which involves opening up the chest and separating the breast bone, can be grueling. It wasn’t until a few days afterward that Surmon began to feel better. He was discharged Jan. 28.

Johannes Steiner, M.D., examines Surmon at a routine appointment in May. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

About six months later, he feels great. The coronavirus pandemic is unfortunately limiting some of his activities. He and his wife had planned to visit their grandchildren in California this spring, but stay-at-home orders related to the pandemic means they’re staying put for the time being. Instead, he’s enjoying fresh air as he works on their 5-acre property and builds bird houses for neighbors.

“I’m wonderful,” Surmon said.

His wife, Becky Surmon, added they are grateful for his recovery and the OHSU staff who made it possible.

“We are very well aware of the fact that they saved his life,” she said of OHSU’s heart failure team. “It’s a great blessing.”

In addition to Steiner, the OHSU providers who have cared for Surmon include Fred Tibayan, M.D., who led the VAD implantation surgery; Charles Henrikson, M.D., and Luke Masha. M.D., M.P.H., who treated Surmon during his hospitalization; and Nalini Colaco, M.D., Ph.D., who leads his outpatient care.

Those interested in receiving heart failure care can call OHSU at 503-494-7400


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