Carolinas HealthCare System

Devin Gilchrist and Levine Children's Hospital Nurses

On December 30, 2011, Huntersville resident and seventh-grade student celebrated his 13th birthday. Three weeks later, he was fighting for his life.

Devin had no history of health issues, but on a cold day in January, he suffered cardiac arrest and collapsed suddenly. Deborah, his mother, found him unresponsive and called 911 and Dontay, his older brother, began administering CPR with instruction from the 911 operator. Emergency responders arrived shortly after and doubtful the boy would make it, rushed him to the nearest hospital, where his family was told nothing could be done.

Deborah struggled to cope with such an abrupt and catastrophic turn of events.

"It's every mother's nightmare. One night he's doing his homework, and the next, he's hooked up to a thousand tubes," she said. "I touched him, prayed with him, and I just told him over and over to keep fighting."

Soon after, Devin was transferred to Levine Children's Hospital and set up in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where he remained in stable but critical condition. After performing a battery of tests, doctors there diagnosed him with dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease that enlarges and weakens the heart's chambers and impairs its ability to pump blood. The condition commonly leads to heart failure and can even cause sudden death.

With the diagnosis made, Devin's family hoped things would get better from there. But the worst was yet to come.

Devin soon developed an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, that wouldn't go away. Then, he caught pneumonia and his left lung collapsed. Though surgery saved his lung, his heart continued to weaken, and he soon went into heart failure.

"He couldn't eat, he couldn't drink. He was wasting away," Deborah said. Having lost her husband six years ago, she couldn't bear the thought of another tragedy in the family.

But pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Thomas Maxey, MD, who had operated on Devin's collapsed lung and was overseeing his care, assured Deborah that he and the entire team of care providers had things under control.

"I asked him if Devin was going to make it," Deborah said. "And he said he wouldn't be doing all of this if he didn't think so."

Dr. Maxey helped the family decide what was best for Devin. He needed a heart transplant, but what he needed even more was a heart that would last him until the transplant came. The best solution, they decided, was to insert a Left Ventricular Assist Device, or LVAD, with continuous flow technology. The surgically implanted device would help Devin to regain heart function – and it would save his life.

On April 5, Dr. Maxey performed the LVAD surgery. Because Devin's entire heart was functioning poorly, he also needed a temporary Right Ventricular Assist Device (RVAD) to get him safely out of the operating room. As Devin slowly recovered, the temporary RVAD was removed leaving him the LVAD to support blood flow to his body.

While the blood flow was restored, Devin's heart function still remained in poor condition. Because of his brother's quick reaction to administer CPR, Devin did not lose any crucial brain function, and fortunately his brain, liver, and kidney function were unaffected by his heart condition.

Once he was in the hospital, it was the expertise of the doctors that kept Devin alive. "Dr. Maxey made the right call at the right time," Deborah said. "He saved his life."

A resounding success, the operation makes Devin the first pediatric patient in Charlotte, NC to have the specific type of device, as well as the youngest person in the state to be discharged from the hospital with one.

And while Devin is ready to go home, his mother knows that for the past few months, Levine Children's Hospital was the best place for him to be.

"The doctors and staff really took care of him. As hard as it has been to watch him go through this, I can truly say he was in excellent hands the whole way through," Deborah said. "It was smooth sailing. I never had to worry. We were treated like family and never left out of the care that was given to Devin the entire three months he was there."

And to top it off, she says, he got all of this exceptional care so close to home. She says she's thankful to be near a pediatric hospital that has the technology and expertise to administer VADs – and when the time comes, to perform a pediatric heart transplant for Devin.

"We haven't had to be far from home during this whole ordeal. Devin received amazing care right here in the area. That really made a world of difference."

These days, Devin is beginning to feel more like a normal eighth grader again.

"His spirits are really good," Deborah said. "And he's not ashamed of his device – he shows it off."

She's proud of her son, and grateful to the doctors at Levine Children's Hospital, for not giving up.

"From the beginning, I told Devin to keep fighting, and he did," she said. "We all did."