HOUSTON—At their home in Porter, brothers Tyler Wertz and Austin Tucker can spend hours playing Xbox. The day we visited the game of choice was mixed-martial arts courtesy of the UFC. But next to their television sits a much more important piece of equipment: the computer and battery charger keeping them both alive.
Tyler was diagnosed first, when he was just six years old. He has Becker Muscular Dystrophy. It causes progressive, disabling weakness in his arms and legs. Now, at the age of 18, he sometimes stumbles and falls. But the disease is also destroying the function of his heart. The progression of the disease has been so severe that he was very near complete heart failure. So two years ago doctors at Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center gave his family a battery-powered option to keep him alive.
“It is becoming significantly more common,” said Methodist cardiologist Dr. Jerry Estep.
The approach that is becoming more common was to implant an LVAD, a left ventricular assist device, in Tyler’s chest. Attached to the left ventricle and the aorta, the impeller-type pump assists the pumping function of the patient’s heart. Tyler’s LVAD, called the HeartMate II and made by Thoratec Corporation, is powered by a drive-line that exits his lower abdomen and is attached to a small computer-controled module powered by two large batteries. The computer and batteries are carried in a small backpack that he can take with him anywhere.
Keep the batteries charged and his heart gets the help it needs, perhaps for several years, before he opts for the heart transplant he will likely need to stay alive.
“Everybody looks at me different,” said Tyler of the small satchel-sized carrying case he always has slung over his shoulder. “It’s hard sometimes when people are just looking at you, staring at you.”
“They said I probably wouldn’t be here today. I think God gave me a second chance at life really,” said Tyler.
“It’s a miracle,” said his mom Jennifer Banks. “It’s just amazing the technology and the things they can do now.”
But what makes Tyler even more unique is that it’s a journey he now shares with his little brother Austin too.
Austin, 15, had the same device implanted earlier this year. Becker Muscular Dystrophy is genetic. Austin has the same heart failure problem too.
“They call me Ironman because of all of it,” joked Tyler.
“They call me the Energizer Bunny,” said Austin.
“We thought it would be our primary strategy to improve his quality of life, improve his chance of survival, and use it as a bridge to heart transplant depending on how he is doing,” said Estep.
“I just know I gotta stay strong,” said Tyler. “I gotta be strong for him. He’s younger than me.”
“He gives me courage, and when he’s down I give him courage,” added Austin. “We gotta do this—we’re brothers. We gotta get through this together.”
Jennifer Banks, a single mom caring for her two sons and their expensive life-lines at their home in Porter in Montgomery County, wishes it was an option she had for her two brothers. They had Becker Muscular Dystrophy as well. One died at 18. The other died at the age of 29.
“I’m just really blessed,” she said of the technology that is keeping her sons alive. “I just wish I’d had that option with my brothers.”
Now two brothers, slowed by a degenerative disease and facing a difficult future, have a fighting chance: walking a battery-powered journey together.