Left ventricular assist devices (LVADs) have moved from being a bridge to a heart transplant to destination therapy for patients with severe heart failure. Although their use in the general public has increased, they still provide a challenge to the emergency medicine (EM) physician. This series aims to cover the basics of how the EM physician approaches the care of these patients.

Some important numbers to consider:

  • 5.7 million patients in the USA have heart failure, half of which will die within 5 years [1].
  • LVAD use is expanding with over 22,000 being placed to date.
  • With a presentation rate to the hospital of 3 per patient LVAD year [2,3].

The Coding LVAD Patient

Follow typical ACLS protocols in the coding LVAD patient but replace pulse checks with doppler MAP checks. Call for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) cannulation if available, and involve surgeons and the LVAD team as soon as possible. Chest compressions in one small study (n=8) did not increase the risk of device malfunction or displacement, although there is a theoretical risk. Device manufacturers generally write that compressions are contraindicated, although most experts recommend compressions if the alternative is death [3]. However, it is critical not to perform compressions unless absolutely sure the patient is not perfusing. Staff should be reminded not to expect a pulse. 

Defibrillation is applicable and useful as some arrhythmias will decrease flow through the heart and increase the risk of pump thrombosis.

With the exception of careful confirmation of no perfusion before starting compressions, normal ACLS can proceed as indicated. There is no LVAD-specific contraindication to intubation and mechanically ventilating. Another point regarding the coding LVAD patient is that care should be taken when moving the patient and removing clothing to avoid severing or kinking the driveline. Treat the driveline in these patients as you would the endotracheal tube in a patient with a difficult airway.


As LVADs become more common, the probability of caring for an LVAD patient continues to increase too, and physicians should be prepared. The devices are complex and require a team of surgeons, heart failure cardiologists and critical care specialists to manage these patients. It is recommended to always contact the patient’s LVAD center or manufacturer since they can provide greater insight into the potential problems that can occur with the devices. Never reverse anticoagulation without a multidisciplinary discussion with the LVAD team.

Did you miss our previous posts? Check out the LVAD introduction, LVAD diagnostic evaluation, LVAD Complications and Non Device Pathology.

For an on-the-spot clinical reference, use ALiEM’s Paucis Verbis card for LVAD complications.


  1. Heart Failure Factsheet. Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention. Published June 16, 2016. Accessed June 11, 2018.
  2. Kroekel PA, George L, Eltoukhy N. How to Manage the Patient in the Emergency Department With a Left Ventricular Assist Device. Journal of Emergency Nursing. 2013;39(5):447-453. PMID 22595685
  3. Vierecke J, Schweiger M, Feldman D, et al. Emergency procedures for patients with a continuous flow left ventricular assist device. Emergency Medicine Journal. 2016;34(12): 831-841.  PMID 27852651
  4. Pistono M, Corrà U, Gnemmi M, Imparato A, Temporelli PL, Tarro Genta F, et al. How to face emergencies in heart failure patients with ventricular assist device. Int J Cardiol. 2013 Oct 15;168(6):5143–8. PMID 23992932
  5. Sen A, Larson JS, Kashani KB, Libricz SL, Patel BM, Guru PK, et al. Mechanical circulatory assist devices: a primer for critical care and emergency physicians. Crit Care. 2016 Jun 25;20(1):153. PMID 27342573
  6. Yuan N, Arnaoutakis GJ, George TJ, et al. The spectrum of complications following left ventricular assist device placement. J Card Surg 2012;27:630-8. PMID 22978843
  7. Kilic A, Acker MA, Atluri P. Dealing with surgical left ventricular assist device complications. J Thorac Dis. 2015 Dec;7(12):2158–64. PMID 26793336
  8. Goldstein DJ, John R, Salerno C, et al. Algorithm for the diagnosis and management of suspected pump thrombus. J Heart Lung Transplant 2013;32:667–70. PMID 23796150
  9. Suarez J, Patel CB, Felker GM, et al. Mechanisms of bleeding and approach to patients with axial-flow left ventricular assist devices. Circ Heart Fail 2011;4:779–84. PMID 22086831
  10. Wasson LT, Yuzefpolskaya M, Wakabayashi M, et al. Hypertension: an unstudied potential risk factor for adverse outcomes during continuous flow ventricular assist device support. Heart Fail Rev 2015;20:317–22. PMID 25283767
  11. Willey JZ, Demmer RT, Takayama H, Colombo PC, Lazar RM. Cerebrovascular disease in the era of left ventricular assist devices with continuous flow: risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment. J Heart Lung Transplant. 2014 Sep;33(9):878–87. PMID 24997495
  12. Stulak JM, Lee D, Haft JW, et al. Gastrointestinal bleeding and subsequent risk of thromboembolic events during support with a left ventricular assist device. J Heart Lung Transplant 2014;33:60-4. PMID 24021944
  13. Lampert BC, Eckert C, Weaver S, et al. Blood pressure control in continuous flow left ventricular assist devices: efficacy and impact on adverse events. Ann Thorac Surg 2014;97:139-46. PMID 24075484
  14. Bedi M, Kormos R, Winowich S, McNamara DM, Mathier MA, Murali S. Ventricular arrhythmias during left ventricular assist device support. Am J Cardiol 2007;99: 1151–3. PMID 17437746
  15. Andersen M, Videbaek R, Boesgaard S, Sander K, Hansen PB, Gustafsson F. Incidence of ventricular arrhythmias in patients on long-term support with a continuous-flow assist device (HeartMate II). J Heart Lung Transplant 2009;28:733–5. PMID 19560703
Gage Stuntz

Gage Stuntz

Emergency Medicine Resident
University of Kentucky
Gage Stuntz

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Andrew Phillips, MD, MedEd, FAAEM

Andrew Phillips, MD, MedEd, FAAEM

Staff Physician
Department of Emergency Medicine
Washington Hospital, Fremont, CA
Andrew Phillips, MD, MedEd, FAAEM

Latest posts by Andrew Phillips, MD, MedEd, FAAEM (see all)