KEARNEY — Cher Scoville noticed that her hands and feet were swelling. She was coughing. She no longer had the energy to walk a few miles a day.
Her doctor assumed it was bronchitis, but three different antibiotics failed to knock out the infection. “My cough was getting worse. I couldn’t function,” she said.
One day, sick and desperate, she walked into the Kearney Family Practice office of Dr. Gilbert Rude and asked to see him. She didn’t have an appointment, but he saw her anyway. “He knew right away something was wrong with me,” she said. He thought it was heart failure. A chest X-ray showed enough fluid around her heart and lungs to equal two two-liter pop bottles. Rude also did an EKG.
Scoville, who designs and sells western wear, expected to leave for a major trail riding exposition in central Missouri, but instead, she was hospitalized.
“I didn’t understand what was going on. When they told me it was my heart, I did not understand,” she said.
One night, after a fit of heavy coughing, an ambulance rushed her from CHI Health Good Samaritan to Omaha. The diagnosis: heart failure. “I had never heard of heart failure,” she said.
Scoville, 60, was placed in the ICU at Nebraska Medicine and kept alive on machines. Her family arrived. She was told she needed a heart transplant. “I was still trying to wrap my head around what they were doing to me,” she said.
Since a heart was not available, a Left Ventricular Assist Device heart pump was surgically implanted into Scoville’s chest. The L-VAD is a mechanical, battery-operated heart pump that helps the heart do its job while patients wait for a transplant. It pumps blood between the left ventricle, which pumps blood out of the lungs, and the aorta.
“You get six batteries. While you wear two, you charge the other four by plugging them into the wall. Without that, you would die,” she said.
While the L-VAD is implanted inside the body, its computer controller, power pack and reserve power pack are all worn outside the body.
In the first few months after surgery, Scoville was on a plethora of medications. She had several surgeries for bacterial infections. “They make L-VADs in just one size, and mine rubbed on the inside of my ribs,” she said.
Her life was irrevocably changed. She had no pulse and no heartbeat; the L-VAD machine kept her alive. Dawson Public Power is aware of where she lives and her medical condition so they can act quickly in case of a power outage. If severe storms are approaching, she goes to a hospital or to a hotel that has a generator so she can stay alive.
She can no longer take a bath or shower. She takes a sponge bath, first wrapping all the machinery on her body into a waterproof bag. Every other day, her dressings must be changed by a home health care nurse or her mother or her daughter, who have been taught the procedure.
But she began to heal, too. Ten months after the L-VAD was implanted, her home health care nurse heard a faint heartbeat. Her heart had started to beat again.
The L-VAD kept causing infections, and antibiotics couldn’t fight them, so doctors eventually removed the L-VAD and all its parts in what she called an “explant.” It was her fourth open heart surgery in the 24 months between November 2015 and November 2017.
“They assumed I’d need a transplant, but my heart continued to pump and get stronger,” she said.
While she still has ups and downs and frequently sees her doctor, Scoville’s heart continues to heal. Its blood flow is nearly up to normal. She also has a defibrillator.
She can no longer care for her horses, but she works between 10 and 15 hours a week at JR Western at 710 E. 25th St. She also has resumed her business, a boutique named LOL Cowgirl. She designs western wear and sells it out of her trailer at horse shows. Born in Omaha, Scoville was raised in Iowa, lived in Wyoming and moved to Kearney in 2004.
She is not cured. “I continue to work to maintain a functioning heart,” she said. “Doctors have little information on my condition because it is rare to have an L-VAD removed without getting a transplant, but my surgeon hopes I can maintain this for several years,” she said. Her personal goal is five years.
“I would tell people to be their own doctor,” she said. “Read yourself. Pay attention to what your body is saying. If you’re not feeling right, get it checked out. If you have swelling in your hands and feet and bloating, and a cough, check it out. If I had jumped into my truck and trailer that morning and just left town, then what? As fast as I went downhill with medical care, how fast would I have gone without it?”