Six months ago, Michael Kelly’s heart was ejecting blood at less than 22%, well below the ideal function of 55%. Climbing up a few stairs left him winded. He couldn’t walk to the mailbox outside his house in White Lake, North Carolina, without losing his breath. Taking a shower felt like climbing a mountain.

Today, Kelly is probably the happiest exerciser you’ve ever seen. He’s smiling while pedaling an elliptical machine, or chatting with cardiac rehab therapists at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center while striding on an indoor track.

What changed? Now he has the help of an electromechanical implant called a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD for short, that pumps his heart.

Kelly is the first individual to receive the implant at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. It’s a technologically advanced solution for individuals with advanced heart failure, and Kelly says it’s given him a new lease on life.

“I can breathe better, I can walk more,” he said. “I feel like a new man.”

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Advanced solution for an advanced problem

Kelly, 70, has a long history of heart issues. He suffered his first heart attack at 49, then three more over the years to come. By 2018, when he experienced his last heart attack, his quality of life was profoundly diminished. His heart was failing.

Heart disease is the second-most-common cause of death in the state. In 2020, 7.2% of North Carolina adults, or around 500,000 people, reported they had suffered a heart attack, angina or coronary heart disease in their lifetime, the North Carolina Division of Public Health states.

In 2023, Kelly’s age and frail condition made him a less-than-ideal candidate for a heart transplant, and medication was not giving him the results he needed.

Dr. Rommel wears a white coat and smiles.
Dr. John Rommel

Dr. John Rommel, director of the heart failure program at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute - Wilmington Main, introduced him to another option: the LVAD. The LVAD would help the heart pump oxygenated blood to his body, Rommel explained to Kelly, lessening his heart’s workload and reducing his symptoms, including the severe shortness of breath that was holding him back.

It meant major surgery, a two-week hospital stay, education on how to control and charge the device, then cardiac rehabilitation, so Kelly didn’t take the decision lightly. He feared he would be putting a burden on his family. But Kelly’s wife, Priscilla, and family encouraged him to get the implant and welcomed the possibility of a better, longer life for him. He decided to move forward and was scheduled for surgery in September 2023.

Once Kelly decided to take the leap, there was a thorough preparation process. He attended cardiac prehab, a prescribed exercise and education regimen. Ultrasounds and pulmonary testing helped determine the health of his arteries and lungs. All of this was key to ensure his heart would be strong enough.

Dr. Marks wears a white coat and smiles
Dr. Howard Fisher Marks

To implant the LVAD device, Dr. Howard Fisher Marks, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute - Wilmington Main, performed open-heart surgery on Kelly, which involved cutting through the breastbone and spreading the ribs to access the heart. Marks placed the pump in the base of his heart, connecting it to the heart muscle. He attached a power cord that extends from Kelly’s abdomen and externally attaches to a 17-hour battery pack that Kelly wears in a small cross-body bag.

Michael Kelly 1
Kelly wears the battery pack for his LVAD in a small cross-body bag.

Blood comes into the pump from the left ventricle of the heart, then exits into the main blood vessels in the body.

“It essentially works for a heart that can’t beat enough on its own,” Rommel explained.

An amazing milestone

Kelly’s successful LVAD implantation is an “amazing milestone” for Novant Health, Rommel said. Since he joined the Wilmington Novant Health Heart & Vascular Institute in 2016, building a LVAD program has been a top priority.

“It's taken a lot of work over the years,” Rommel said. “It's been a wonderful process and to finally get to the point where we were able to implant to help someone feel better and live longer … was fantastic.”

Both Kelly and Rommel emphasize that a significant aspect for them is the availability of the LVAD implant for individuals living in New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, Bladen, Onslow and Pender counties. This means that patients with advanced heart failure have an option that’s close to home, without driving to other parts of North Carolina to receive the best treatment.

Kelly said he began coming to Wilmington, 39 miles from his home, more than 20 years ago for heart care, and he loves that here he doesn’t feel like “just a number.”

“People should be able to go to their local community,” Kelly said.

Michael Kelly 2

Since Kelly’s surgery, there’s been one additional local heart failure patient to receive an LVAD at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Rommel said the goal is to continue to expand the program in the future.

“The real goal behind this is to make certain we're giving our heart failure patients the best chance to get the best out of their life … and to support them in the best way we can,” he said. “We want to make sure this medical treatment for our patients is available to as many people that we think can benefit from it as possible.”

Newfound freedom

Kelly’s been attending cardiac rehabilitation two days a week at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. So that he and Priscilla don’t have to make the commute from home every Tuesday and Thursday, they’ve been staying in the SECU Family House, located just down the street from the hospital. Once he completes cardiac rehab, he’ll return home.

Michael Kelly 3
Kelly is staying at the SECU Family House, near New Hanover Regional Medical Center, during cardiac rehabilitation.

Kelly is grateful to his Wilmington cardiology team and calls Rommel his “hero.”

Rommel said seeing Kelly live a more fulfilled life is the best reward after all the labor it took to launch the program. This is what the cardiology team is all about, and the LVAD is promising technology that will help them help more people.

“It's not just going to help them live longer, but it's going to help them get back to having fewer symptoms with their activity,” Rommel said. “So instead of getting short of breath, taking a shower and having to stop and rest, they can now do laps and walk upstairs and go play golf, or go back to work, and get back to just being part of the community.”

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