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patient TJ Balliao walking down hall

Ventricular assist device helps teen graduate from high school

When 17-year-old TJ Balliao was diagnosed with heart failure earlier this year, his doctors at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford told him that he needed to receive a ventricular assist device right away. TJ was experiencing bouts of unstable heart rhythm so serious that medication alone wasn't enough to keep him alive. The VAD, a pump implanted in his heart to help it move blood through his body, could help him survive long enough to receive a heart transplant.

But something unexpected happened after the surgery to implant TJ's ventricular assist device. He made a strong recovery - so strong that his cardiologist, David Rosenthal, MD, offered him the opportunity to go home with his VAD, graduate from high school with his class this June, and delay a heart transplant indefinitely.

In a recent story I wrote about TJ's case, Rosenthal explained how this could benefit TJ not just now, but also in the long run:

“It’s possible that using a VAD to intentionally delay a heart transplant could add to the patient’s total lifespan,” said Rosenthal, who directs the hospital’s pediatric heart failure and transplantation program and is professor of pediatrics at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “Survival after transplant is not as long as the natural lifespan, especially for children.”

The benefits of a VAD are many. It helps patients maintain strength while waiting for a new heart; otherwise, heart failure weakens the body, making recovery from eventual transplant more difficult. When a child is stabilized by use of a VAD, the medical team can be more selective about choosing a donor heart that is an excellent match for the recipient, too. “Plus,” said Rosenthal, “there is some likelihood that a small proportion of patients’ hearts will be able to recover and those children will avoid transplant completely.”

TJ and his medical team aren't sure if or when he will ultimately move toward getting a heart transplant. But he's been accepted to San Jose State University to study civil engineering, so he may be in class in the fall with his VAD battery pack at his side.

Previously: Packard Children's heart transplant family featured tonight on Dateline, Liberated from LVAD support: One patient's story and Pediatric social worker discusses the emotional side of heart transplants
Photo courtesy of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford

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