Left Ventricular Assist Device Management in the Emergency Department

Paul Trinquero, MD; Andrew Pirotte, MD; Lauren P. Gallagher, MD, MA; Kimberly M. Iwaki, MD; Christopher Beach, MD; Jane E. Wilcox, MD


Western J Emerg Med. 2018;19(5):834-841. 

In This Article

VAD Device: Alarms and Troubleshooting

The parameters reported on the HMII and HMIII controller are speed, power, flow, and pulsatility index (PI). The HVAD controller reports speed and power only; waveforms are reported on the system monitor reflective of pulsatility. Speed is the only parameter that is set, in revolutions per minute. Power is measured in watts and is indicative of the work being done by the device. Flow is calculated based on the power and speed, and is a result of both the device speed and the pressure gradient between the inflow and outflow cannula. PI is related to flow through the device and can be thought of as the contribution of the native LV. As the native LV contracts, there is a pressure wave sent through the pump. The magnitude of this pressure pulse is measured by the device, averaged over time, and reported as the PI.

The HVAD device uses waveforms on the system monitor to provide an estimate of intrinsic LV function. A larger delta between the peak flow and trough flow represents greater contribution from the native LV. Clinical situations with less LV filling (e.g. hypovolemia) result in low PI. The PI may also be low if pump support is increased; blood is preferentially pulled into the device circuit and intrinsic LV volume is reduced. When troubleshooting the device, it is important to consider all of the parameters. For example, suction events often present with low flow, low power, and low speed because the device senses the event and responds by slowing down to allow for increased LV filling. In the setting of high flow and high power, pump thrombosis must be considered, especially when accompanied by signs and symptoms of HF.

The VAD controller will display, or alarm, in the setting of device malfunction or organic pathology interfering with device functioning. Immediate consultation with the VAD team is necessary. Make sure to properly identify the VAD type. Patients should know this information, which is found on the controller. Devices can also be identified by radiograph appearance as discussed above. An overview of each device and the corresponding alarm types is presented below. This is followed by a general outline of the approach to several common VAD alarms.

Heartmate II and III Alarms

The HM controller has two alarm icons: a battery and a heart. Most patients now have a pocket controller that has a user interface screen with further text information such as "Low Flow" or "Connect Driveline." The battery alarm icon will flash either yellow or red to indicate the remaining charge. The yellow alarm indicates 15 minutes of remaining battery power. The red alarm indicates only five minutes remaining. The flashing red heart alarm indicates low flow or pump stoppage. This necessitates emergent discussion with the VAD team. In the setting of a red heart alarm ensure adequate IV access and maintain hemodynamic stability with inotropes as needed. See the discussion of low-flow alarms below for further detail.

HVAD Alarms

The HVAD controller has three levels of alarms, categorized by level of priority: low (solid yellow), medium (flashing yellow), and high (red). There are two parts to the display, an alarm and an action. In general, the alarms are intuitive. For example, the "Low Battery" or "Critical Battery" alarm is accompanied by an action such as "Replace Battery 1." Even critical alarms such as "VAD Stopped" can have potentially easily reversible actions such as "Connect Driveline." Several of the more common alarms are addressed separately below.

Controller Fault

VAD patients and their caregivers are instructed to carry a back-up controller in case of controller malfunction. This alarm necessitates immediate consultation with the VAD team. Controller exchanges should only be performed by a trained professional.

Electrical Fault

The driveline contains six separate wires to maintain pump function. There is a level of redundancy but fracture of these wires will cause an electrical fault alarm, and complete severance can result in pump malfunction.[24] Consult with the VAD team immediately.

High Watts

Power spikes are often the result of pump thrombosis due to the increased energy requirement. The HMII and III devices - in the setting of obstructive thrombus - will display a flashing red alarm on the attached monitor; the HVAD monitor will read "Low flow – Call."

Low Flow

Evaluation of a VAD patient with a low-flow alarm starts with an assessment of overall clinical stability (Figure 3). In a hemodynamically unstable VAD patient, a low-flow alarm should be treated as pump malfunction until proven otherwise. With a severe inlet cannula obstruction from thrombus flow through the VAD will be negligible and cardiac output is dependent on intrinsic LV function, which is likely insufficient to maintain adequate end organ perfusion. In this scenario, emergency physicians should treat the patient as you would any patient in cardiogenic shock.

Figure 3.

Approach to low flow alarms for patient with Ventricular Assist Device.
EKG, electrocardiography; MAP, mean arterial pressure; IV, intravenous; JVD, jugular vein distention; LE, leg; RV, right ventricle.

Place large-bore IVs, obtain a stat echocardiogram (begin with a bedside point-of-care ultrasound if a formal study is not immediately available), and start inotropic support. Be sure to check a stat ECG, as ventricular dysrhythmias can precipitate acute right heart failure and subsequent shock. If the patient is stable, the provider should focus on differentiating other causes of low-flow alarms: hypovolemia and RV failure. If the etiology remains unclear after physical examination, a point-of-care ultrasound can be useful.

An inferior vena cava (IVC) that collapses on inspiration suggests inadequate pre-load and should be addressed with volume resuscitation.[25] On the other hand, right heart failure or RV myocardial infarction may be detected by measuring the RV:LV ratio. On an apical four view, measure the widest diameter of each ventricle transversely from endocardium to endocardium. If the RV:LV ratio is greater than 0.6, this may indicate RV failure or RV strain.[25] RV dysfunction can be suggested if the IVC decreases less than 50% with inspiration.[5]

Ultrasound can also be useful when troubleshooting other alarms. If both ventricles are large and dilated, this suggests pump failure, perhaps from thrombosis. Pump thrombosis is a true emergency and often requires surgical exchange of the device. Without pump exchange or transplant, pump thrombosis carries a 48% six-month mortality.[26] Alternatively, a small LV could represent a suction event and can be addressed with a volume challenge and a discussion with the LVAD team about turning down the device speed.