Heart Failure Survivor Prepares to Climb Mt. Fuji | Ascension

Heart Failure Survivor Prepares to Climb Mt. Fuji

Matt is doing more than surviving. He’s thriving thanks to his indomitable spirit, his Illinois care team and heart pump implant technology.

In March 2020, Matt Matusiak was asking himself, “Will I make it to next week?” In April 2023, he’ll be asking, “Will I make it to the top?”

April is when Matt — a survivor of end-stage heart failure, prostate cancer and a thoracic hemorrhage — plans to visit his son and grandchildren in Japan. While there, he hopes to knock a big item off his bucket list: climb Mt. Fuji.

With any luck, Matt’s incredible journey will end at the summit, but it started at the hospital just down the street from where he lives.

UPDATE (5/15/23): Matt’s Japan adventure included cherry blossoms, watching sumo matches and an ascent of Mt. Tsukuba (roughly a quarter the height of Mt. Fuji). However, his lung capacity did not allow for an ascent of Mt. Fuji. Undeterred, Matt intends to try again in August 2024.

Skipping the wait with LVAD

In March 2020, Matt arrived at Ascension Medical Group Illinois - Heart Function Clinic Elk Grove on the Ascension Alexian Brothers campus in a state of cardiogenic shock and was promptly sent to the hospital’s Emergency Room. His heart was not pumping enough blood or oxygen to his vital organs or his brain. Matt was connected to a temporary heart pump and medication helped stabilize his condition.

Edith Boyes, a nurse practitioner specializing in heart failure and left ventricular assist devices (LVADs), has worked with patients in Matt’s situation her entire career. She manages and coordinates the clinic’s LVAD program.

“Our patients, when they come to us, are often the sickest of the sick,” she explains. “They’re living with chronic shortness of breath and fatigue. Many cannot perform simple daily activities like walking in the mall or doing their grocery shopping.”

Even in critical condition, Matt impressed Edith with his sheer determination. “Throughout all the bad news and complications he experienced, Matt always remained resilient. He didn’t need us to push him. He was self-motivated and self-driven.”

Matt’s cardiologist, Ashish Haryani, MD, an advanced heart failure specialist and system director of heart failure program at Ascension Illinois, was delighted to offer his patient a “second chance” on life.

“Heart transplant remains the gold standard treatment forend-stage heart failure, but the number of patients exceeds the number of hearts available for transplant. And, patients with cancer diagnosis do not qualify for organ transplant. Matt had recently been treated for prostate cancer. Luckily, LVADs offer a proven alternative for patients like him.”

LVADs are mechanical pumps that are surgically placed inside the heart’s lower left chamber and then connected to external batteries that the patient wears in a holster. These devices take over for the heart when it is unable to function properly.

Once the size of a kitchen appliance, heart pumps were used only as transitional therapy for patients waiting for heart transplants. Now that the technology is not much larger than a golf ball, an LVAD can be safely implanted and keep the heart pumping normally for years with careful monitoring — all while patients go about their regular lives.

Even after 13 years, Edith is astounded by the technology and the effect it’s had on heart failure care. “It’s so incredible that people can live life to its fullest with this heart machine inside them.”

So, instead of having to wait for a new heart, Matt received his LVAD as soon as he was physically ready for the procedure.

Matt Matusiak on his bike

Compassionate care with proven results

Healthgrades has ranked Ascension Alexian Brothers among America's 50 Best Hospitals for Cardiac Surgery for three consecutive years. Patients at Ascension Medical Group Illinois - Heart Function Clinic Elk Grove are connected to the hospital’s wide range of specialists and support staff, including cardiovascular surgeons, electrophysiologists, dietitians, social workers, health psychologists and palliative care specialists. 

“It takes multiple experts to contribute to the benefit and healing of our patients,” says Edith. “As a program, we make sure that we have all hands on deck. And we do anything we can to make the patient feel better. Not just physically, but mentally, spiritually.”

Social workers, chaplains and health psychologists are available to help patients stay motivated. The nurses make a point of giving patients something to look at besides their ceilings, even if it’s just taking them down to see the hospital’s holiday decorations or chapel or outdoor garden.

“Those 20 minutes in the sun can make such a difference to our patients,” says Edith. “They work harder during physical therapy. They see that light at the end of the tunnel.”

Patients and their caregivers also receive approximately 24 total hours (spread out over two weeks) of education on how to use their new device. By learning which buttons to press, how to change batteries, how to understand the alerts and troubleshoot common issues, patients get peace of mind when they need it the most.

“All of our patients go home confident and comfortable thanks to this support from our nurses and medical team,” Edith says. “They know that they can take care of their LVAD…and that it will take care of them.”

The TLC doesn’t stop upon discharge either. When LVAD patients come in for their one-year checkup, they are greeted with a heart-shaped cookie cake to celebrate how far they’ve come.

Living a full life with a heart pump

Matt hardly needs help staying motivated, however. An avid cyclist, his first question after his surgery was, “When can I ride my bike?” Two to three days later, he was determined to walk down the hall, even while tethered to all his machines. Even when confined to his bed, Matt could often be found working on his laptop.

“That’s the thing about Matt. You can’t take him down for very long,” Edith laughs.

Matt worked hard to regain his strength and mobility. It took approximately three months before he began to feel a tangible improvement, but by autumn, he was riding up to 16 miles per day on his new recumbent bike.

Two years later, Matt told his care team he wanted to travel to Japan in 2023. Edith was overjoyed.

“We want to make sure that our healthy patients are able to travel and see their families and not be afraid to live life with a heart pump. We want them to have a life, not just survive.”

Edith and her colleagues are helping Matt make all the arrangements, including power convertors, adapter plugs, extra batteries and medication, and medical letters. They’ve also lined up a support person in Tokyo through the LVAD’s manufacturer. And if Matt ever needs anything stateside, he can call or text his care team directly.

Patients like Matt are why Edith loves coming into work each day. Over the years, she has gotten to see some of her heart failure patients live to meet their first grandbaby or see their children get married. 

“I would love to see more of that!”

Do you frequently feel tired and short of breath, even during everyday activities? Learn to recognize the symptoms of heart failure and find an Ascension Illinois specialist near you.