Gayle Wilkerson doesn't accept hero status. Her care team at Mayo Clinic disagrees. At age 84, Gayle, holds the honor of living on a left ventricular assist device for 10 years. Those odds don't always work that kind of wonder for many. Only a few patients in the U.S. have achieved that milestone.
Robert Scott, M.D., a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, says the device allows a person to have severe advanced heart failure and still have a reasonable quality of life.
Gayle walks, lifts weights at a cardiac rehabilitation center twice a week and proudly carries her device in a black shoulder bag, as if it were a fashion statement.
Heart problems began for Gayle in 2005 while living in her hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when she experienced trouble breathing. She was outfitted with a pacemaker and defibrillator, which alarmed her family in Arizona. She agreed to move to Arizona and live under the watchful eye of her son.
It was a fortuitous decision. Although Gayle enjoyed good health for more than three years, heart issues reappeared in 2010, and she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
She was referred to Mayo Clinic in Arizona for a consult. While in the waiting room, Gayle passed out, requiring a speedy trip to Mayo's emergency department. "That's when my doctors told me and my family that I was eligible for the LVAD," recalls Gayle. "They explained that I would have to undergo a surgery to have the device put in my chest."
That surgery took place on Feb. 1, 2010, and Gayle spent a month at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Arizona. "I'm not allowed to take this device off of my body," Gayle explains. "I'm on batteries with a controller during the day and at night I am connected to electric power."
She admits to getting a few inquiries from people who spot her device and battery case. On a trip back to Pittsburgh in 2011 to reunite with friends, Gayle was about to board the plane with her device. She struck up a conversation with a woman in the waiting area and explained about her device.
"The lady was amazed," Gayle says. Astounded by Gayle's story, the stranger went up to the gate and arranged for Gayle to fly first class. "I was overwhelmed by this kind act," Gayle says. "And when we landed, she bent down and gave me a hug. God bless her, wherever she is."
Today, Gayle relishes her freedom to move around, leave the house and get back to normalcy.
"I feel so blessed to be here, alive and enjoying my life and my wonderful family," she says. She praises her team at Mayo Clinic for their care, concern and professionalism.