As a mother, Lisa Schumacher, of Neenah, Wisconsin, knows how hard it is to put your child’s life in someone else’s hands. Last summer she had no other choice.
On June 6, 2019, her son, Logan, then 19, sent her a text around lunchtime. He was cutting grass at his summer job when he started feeling unusually fatigued. Lisa encouraged him to take a break and drink some water, but he texted back that it wasn’t helping. In fact, he was experiencing chest pain, an odd symptom for a physically fit teenager. He wanted to finish his shift, but Lisa convinced him to meet her at home. Once there, she could see Logan was extremely uncomfortable. He suddenly asked his Mom to take him to the emergency department at a nearby hospital.
“He said he was so tired he couldn’t use his arms, and it hit me that it might be his heart,” Lisa said.
The emergency room doctors quickly determined Logan was having a massive heart attack caused by a blood clot in his coronary artery, a rare condition for someone his age. They rushed him by ambulance to a larger hospital in Appleton that was better equipped for cardiac emergencies. There, doctors found that both the right and left ventricles of Logan’s heart were damaged, leaving the left side unable to pump more than a small amount of blood. The lack of circulation was causing his lungs to fail, and he could no longer breathe on his own.
At that point, the doctors in Appleton made an important call to Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Froedtert Hospital, activating a special protocol for patients with heart failure. Within minutes, a group of Froedtert & MCW heart specialists gathered on a conference call to discuss Logan’s care. They agreed he should be flown by helicopter from Appleton to Froedtert Hospital for urgent treatment.
Highest Level of Care
When Logan arrived on the helipad at Froedtert Hospital the morning of June 7, he was taken quickly to an operating room, where Lucian “Buck” Durham III, MD, PhD, cardiothoracic surgeon and MCW faculty member, performed surgery to place him on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support. This system pumps and oxygenates blood outside the body temporarily so the heart and lungs can rest. Dr. Durham has been treating patients with this technology for more than two decades, and the ECMO Program at Froedtert Hospital is the only adult program in Wisconsin designated as a Center on Path to Excellence in Life Support by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization.
With ECMO in place, Logan was moved to the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) where the medical team could provide the high level of care he needed, work to stabilize him and determine the next phase of treatment.
Because ECMO was circulating blood throughout his body, Logan’s lungs began to recover. He no longer needed ECMO to breathe for him, though he still required a device to handle his heart’s pumping function. Dr. Durham switched him to a ventricular assist device known as a BiVAD, which included two pumps, one for each side of his heart. Given his extensive heart damage, Logan’s physicians began to discuss whether he should have an artificial heart or a heart transplant with a donor organ.
But Logan was still too sick for either option. Mitchell Saltzberg, MD, medical director of the Comprehensive Heart Failure and Transplant Program and MCW faculty member, explained to Logan and his parents that to be considered a good candidate for a heart transplant, Logan would need to get back on his feet, increase his nutrient intake and engage with the team in his healing process. Just standing was a huge task for Logan, who is 6 foot, 4 inches tall.
“I was so weak and so big that they had to have two therapists essentially lift me out of bed,” Logan said. When he began to take steps, he needed as many as seven people around him, including physical therapists, nurses and a perfusionist, who transferred the BiVAD to a wheeled cart so Logan could pull it along, and then monitored the equipment as he walked. Logan’s mom; his dad, Ryan; and his sister, Morgan, were always nearby as well.
The weeks after Logan’s heart attack included many ups and downs, including bouts of pneumonia, a medication allergy and other complications that challenged his already compromised health. Some days Logan was so physically and emotionally depleted that he struggled to leave his bed, yet he pushed through.
“He found the heart and strength to get motivated,” Dr. Saltzberg said. “He inspired a lot of people.”
A Team To Lean On
Throughout the summer, the medical team in the CVICU served as a lifeline for Logan and his family. Logan appreciated nurses, physical therapists, perfusionists and doctors who talked sports and video games with him, shared his sarcastic sense of humor and searched the city to find a frozen version of his favorite soft drink.
The family relied on team members, especially Carolyn Pinkerton, MD, an anesthesiologist and MCW faculty member, who regularly cared for Logan in the CVICU and provided pep talks when he or his parents felt overwhelmed. She often appeared in Logan’s room with a coffee for his mom. A parent herself, Dr. Pinkerton said she appreciated Lisa’s strength.
“I thought, ‘This woman is my kindred spirit, and I need to feed her caffeine,’” Dr. Pinkerton said.
This compassionate care meant the world to Lisa and Ryan, who both struggled to make sense of the fact that their once-healthy teenager was so suddenly, inexplicably sick.
“A lot of those people are like family to us,” Lisa said.
Father-Son Transplant Team
By late September, Logan was strong and stable enough that his case was presented to the Froedtert & MCW transplant selection team.
“I always say it’s the best medical care in the world,” said David Joyce, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon and MCW faculty member. “You have the ultimate crowd wisdom — surgeons, cardiologists, psychologists, nutritionists — an incredible range of disciplines that all sit in a room together to determine the best course of action.” They agreed Logan was a good candidate for a heart transplant.
Logan was placed on the national waiting list for a heart on Sept. 22. Within days, an ideal donor heart became available, and on Sept. 26, Dr. Joyce and his father, Lyle Joyce, MD, PhD, cardiothoracic surgeon and MCW faculty member, worked together to perform Logan’s heart transplant.
“On that critical day for our son, we felt reassured to have a father–son team performing his surgery,” Lisa said. Logan’s family felt tremendous relief when Dr. David Joyce appeared to report the transplant was a success.
With the transplant complete, Logan was monitored closely for signs of organ rejection. In October, he was transferred to rehabilitation at Froedtert Hospital for additional physical therapy and recovery time. On Nov. 18, more than five months after he arrived by helicopter, Logan finally went home.
In between his college classes, Logan and his parents make frequent trips from Neenah to Froedtert Hospital for follow-up appointments, including biopsies to check the health of his new heart. Logan has had extensive genetic testing to look for an inherited component to his unusual heart attack, but the tests did not reveal a genetic link. The heart attack remains a mystery.
In contrast, the Schumachers’ feelings are clear.
“If you end up at Froedtert Hospital, you’re going to have great people taking care of you — people who really care about you,” Logan said.
Lisa agreed. She and her family are grateful for the caring expertise of the Froedtert Hospital team. “I thank God we found ourselves with that group of people,” she said.