Justin Holland has a unique appreciation for what his heart feels like.
The 30-year-old veteran has a golf-ball-sized pump keeping the blood running through his body, and when doctors changed out its controller recently, Holland could feel his bad heart struggle to keep him alive for a few minutes.
“It’s actually pretty miserable,” he says. “I don’t even know how to explain it. After having your heart feel so good for a while, it literally feels like you’re shutting down. You can feel the pump stop and your heart slowing.”
While Congress votes on national health care legislation, the federally run McGuire Veterans Hospital in South Richmond is working the front lines of medical care for men and women who were in the military. And it’s the only veterans’ hospital in the country that installs these cutting-edge pumps, known as left ventricular assist devices, meaning that patients with heart failure travel from across the United States.
Holland, an Enon resident and single dad, first went to McGuire in 2015 with fluid in his lungs. “I felt like I was drowning,” he says. “I could barely breathe.”
The first diagnosis was pneumonia but doctors quickly realized his heart was too weak and fluid was building up all over his body.
He’s waiting for a new heart, but the pump has kept him alive since September 2015. It’s the same technology that kept former Vice President Dick Cheney alive for 20 months before his 2012 transplant.
It’s a relatively new device — the first generation was developed in 1995, but early patients had to stay hooked up to machines at the hospital. Holland carries his heart in a 10-pound bag — or, at least, the controller and battery that keep his heart pump going.
“The only thing I’ve got to get used to is wearing a purse,” he jokes.
McGuire nurse Lisa Martin says that soon, heart transplants won’t be necessary. “Once the device becomes completely implantable,” she says, “nobody will want a heart transplant at all.”
Martin explains how the device works: Centrifugal force takes over the role of the left ventricle of the heart, shooting blood out through Holland’s body. Electrical wires exit his abdomen into the controller. Numerous alarms alert Holland if batteries are low or malfunction is imminent.
“It changes people’s lives,” Martin says.
Holland can’t say enough nice things about the doctors and nurses at McGuire, who answer his calls and texts at every hour.
“The treatment I’ve gotten here — everybody cares,” he says. “They do the best they can at their job. And that’s why I’m still here.”
As to the cause of his heart failure, Martin isn’t sure, but thinks Holland was exposed to a virus or chemicals while abroad. Holland, who served in Afghanistan in 2010, thinks he might be a victim of infamous burn pits — the subject of numerous studies, congressional hearings, a 2016 book and ongoing litigation.
“We burn most of the stuff we use over there, from batteries to body parts to human waste,” Holland says. For a base that houses 10,000-15,000 soldiers, he says, that’s close to 2,500 tons a day going into the air where they live.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs maintains a registry of tens of thousands of veterans deployed to the Middle East suffering from cancers and lung and heart ailments that could be connected to the burn pits.
For Holland, though, the outlook is good for a new heart. And the burden isn’t anything he can’t handle. He says he can run a mile on the treadmill, cut his acre lawn with a push mower, and play basketball with his 9-year-old son.
“I can’t get in the pool,” he says. “But that’s a small sacrifice for still being able to walk around.” S