Verona woman returns home with heart pump

By MICHAELA GIBSON MORRIS / NEMS Daily Journal

VERONA – After a decade of fighting congestive heart failure, Jackie Kirkman had come to the end of the road this summer.
The 43-year-old Verona woman was able to watch her daughter, Jacques, graduate from Shannon High School in May, but she quickly became so weak she couldn’t get out of bed. To speak in a whisper required the effort of shouting.
“She was so sick,” said Kirkman’s fiance, Andy Elzie Jr.
In August, a 100-person medical transplant team at University of Mississippi Medical Center built Kirkman a bridge to a reinvigorated life and, they hope, a future heart transplant.
“I was determined; I had been through so much, I didn’t want to give up.” said Kirkman, who credits God, her family and her medical teams in Tupelo and Jackson with bringing her this far. “This is better than I felt back when I was diagnosed” in January 2001.
Kirkman, a former Tupelo assistant teacher, was the first in Mississippi to receive a new generation left ventricle assist device – LVAD, for short.
It takes a stream of blood from her bottom left chamber of her heart and delivers it to the aorta, the artery that takes oxygen-rich blood to the body.
During the day, it’s powered by a pump she wears at her waist and a pair of batteries she wears on her hips like holsters. At night, she’s plugged into a base unit.
“The weak heart doesn’t have to work so hard,” said Dr. Curt Tribble, the lead surgeon for Kirkman at University Medical Center.
The LVAD will give Kirkman the best chance at being strong and healthy when a transplant match becomes available, Tribble said.

Tough fight
In most cases, heart failure is the result of long-term damage from heart attacks, uncontrolled high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. However, Kirkman’s condition – unexplained cardiomyopathy – can develop from genetic mutations or complications from a virus.
“We think of heart failure as an older person’s disease, but it can happen to younger people,” said Tupelo cardiologist Dr. Karl Crossen, who is one of Kirkman’s physicians.
For years, a team of health professionals in Tupelo, including nurse practitioner Chris Bell and pharmacist Todd Sandroni, have worked to keep Kirkman’s heart functioning.
In March, Kirkman became one of the first two North Mississippi Medical Center Home Health patients to receive life-sustaining IV medication at home.
“They usually manage it in intensive care units,” said NMMC Home Health Nurse Tonya Mathis, who along with her colleagues had to go through special training to help the heart transplant patients at home.
The recovery from the LVAD surgery hasn’t been easy. Kirkman spent weeks in the ICU at University because her liver and kidneys began to fail. She required a second surgery to replace the heart defibrillator. Then she had weeks of cardiac rehabilitation in Jackson.
She returned home to Verona this month, and the change in her is remarkable.
“The last time I saw her here, she couldn’t walk,” Mathis said. “She has a new lease on life.”

Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 678-1599 or michaela.morris@djournal.com.