Still, it appeared to be a relatively mild attack, and when doctors put a stent in his artery, they expected that to solve the problem.
“At the time, it appeared it was not major; there was not a lot of damage,” said Cheri Benander, his wife.
Though it seemed fairly minor at the time, that was the start of a very long, difficult medical journey in which Greg’s heart continued to fail.
At his six-month checkup, monitoring while he walked on a treadmill indicated he had an irregular heart rhythm. Surgeons inserted a pacemaker and a defibrillator to regulate his heartbeat, expecting that to take care of the problem.
Doctors in Billings also did a procedure called ablation “to try to get the top of the heart to quit talking to the bottom of the heart,” Cheri said. That made him pacemaker-dependent.
But Greg’s irregular heartbeat continued, so doctors replaced his pacemaker with a different kind in May 2011, once again hopeful that he would have no more difficulties.
When that didn’t solve his problems, Greg had three different procedures to change out wires. But he still was experiencing constant heart rhythm irregularities, Cheri said.
That led to his doctor’s decision to send him to the Utah University Medical Center in Salt Lake City in October 2012 for another ablation. He also received full heart-failure evaluation to determine if Greg was a candidate for a heart transplant.
“While he was sick, he was not sick enough for that, so they would try to do medical therapy,” Cheri said.
After that, “He was OK for about four to five months, then his heart failure started progressing a bit, and his irregular heart rhythm came back again,” she said.
He went back to Salt Lake City for another evaluation, with the same result. Doctors adjusted his medical therapy and sent him home.
He didn’t improve much after that, Cheri said.
An evaluation at the medical center in 2013 showed the ablation had stopped Greg’s irregular rhythm, but his heart failure was getting worse.
Between his visits to Utah University Medical Center, Greg’s medical care was managed at the university’s outreach clinic in Billings.
Jennifer Strege, a nurse with the medical center, participated in the interview with the Benanders. She said, “Greg was having lots of different symptoms — issues with his stomach, kidneys, gallbladder — that turned out to be caused by decreased blood supply to those areas.”
Strege works in Salt Lake, but travels with a cardiologist to the Billings outreach clinic once every two months.
“The decision then was made for Greg to go back out to Salt Lake City to be evaluated to see where he was at with his congestive heart failure,” she said.
That evaluation took place three days later, on June 2 — the Benanders’ 30th anniversary.
“We hadn’t expected to celebrate it that way,” Cheri said.
Doctors determined Greg’s heart failure had progressed significantly, making him a candidate for an mechanical pump to assist his weakening heart and for a heart transplant.
The pump — a HeartWare left ventricular assist device, or LVAD — was surgically implanted at the bottom of Greg’s heart and grafted into his aorta. It is run by a small external computer, called a controller, that is connected by a small cable that passes through the skin of his upper abdomen. The controller runs the pump and provides text messages and audible alarms to help him manage the system.
“It’s a miracle,” Greg said of the pump, which has given him more energy and vitality.
Before he got the LVAD, he had difficulty taking out the trash 40 yards from the house.
“I couldn’t stand up any longer, I couldn’t breathe. I was pretty much done. I would get the shakes and everything. Two weeks after the LVAD (was implanted), I was walking two city blocks.”
The LVAD provides four to 10 liters of blood flow per minute. Batteries operate the system for four to six hours, and Greg always carries extra batteries and a backup controller.
Strege said the LVAD is similar to the heart pump used by former Vice President Dick Cheney before his heart transplant, but a newer model.
“Greg has the newest technology,” she said.
Strege said the pump is improving Greg’s health and getting him stronger, making him a better candidate for a successful heart transplant.
Greg remained in Salt Lake City until the third week in August in order to facilitate healing and to learn how to take care of the pump that is keeping him alive. Cheri stayed with him for the first two weeks, and their son Nick took time off work to be with him for several weeks after that.
When it was time for him to come home, Stege traveled to Powell as well in order to train medical staff at Powell Valley Healthcare in how to care for him. To their knowledge, no one in Powell has had a heart pump before.
While the pump is keeping him alive and improving his health, Greg ultimately needs a heart transplant.
“I didn’t know how sick I was until I felt better,” Greg said. “The LVAD made such a difference. It gave me a chance to be healthy enough to get a new heart.”
“Now we’re waiting for a heart,” Cheri said. “We’re waiting on two calls — first saying to come back (to Salt Lake) and then, ‘We’ve got a heart.’”
If you'd like to help
A benefit chili cook-off and auction will take place Saturday at The Commons to help Greg Benander with medical costs for his heart pump and needed heart transplant.