John Winkler II was dying of heart failure when doctors came to his hospital bedside, offering a chance to prolong his life. The HeartWare Ventricular Assist Device, or HVAD, could be implanted in Winkler’s chest until a transplant was possible. The heart pump came with disclaimers of risk, but Winkler wanted to fight for time. He was only 46 and had a loving wife and four children, and his second grandchild was on the way.
So, in August 2014, Winkler had surgery to implant the device. A golf-ball–sized rotor was attached to his left ventricle to pump blood through a tube and into his aorta. A cable threading out of a small incision in his waist connected to a battery-powered controller strapped to his body. If something went wrong, an alarm as loud as a fire drill would sound.
Winkler returned home weeks later and, as he regained his strength, became hopeful about the future. He started making plans to visit colleges with his daughter, and was able to host his parents and new grandchild for Christmas. “He was doing so much better,” his wife, Tina Winkler, said. “We thought he was coasting until he got his transplant.”
What John Winkler didn’t know: Months before his implant, the Food and Drug Administration put HeartWare on notice for not properly monitoring or repairing HVAD defects, such as faulty batteries and short circuits caused by static electricity, that had killed patients. The agency issued a warning letter, one of its most serious citations. It demanded fixes within 15 days, but took no decisive action as problems persisted.
Ten days after Christmas of 2014, Winkler’s two teenage children heard the HVAD’s piercing alarm and ran upstairs. They found their father collapsed on his bedroom floor, completely unresponsive. Kelly, 17, dropped to his side and tried to copy how people on television did CPR. She told her brother to call 911, and over the device’s siren did her best to hear instructions from the operator.
When paramedics arrived and assessed her father, one made a passing comment that has haunted Kelly ever since: “Well, his toes are already cold.” He died 2 days later. Medtronic, the company that acquired HeartWare in 2016, settled a lawsuit by the family last year, admitting no fault. Tina Winkler believes her children blamed themselves for their father’s death. “Those two kids have never been the same,” she said. “I think they feel like they didn’t do things they needed to do.”
But it was the FDA that failed to protect Winkler and thousands of other patients whose survival depended on the HVAD, a ProPublica investigation found.
As HeartWare and Medtronic failed inspection after inspection and reports of device-related deaths piled up, the FDA relied on the device makers to fix the problems voluntarily rather than compelling them to do so.
The HVAD was implanted into more than 19,000 patients, the majority of whom got it after the FDA found in 2014 that the device didn’t meet federal standards. By the end of last year, the agency had received more than 3,000 reports of patient deaths that may have been caused or contributed to by the device.
Among them were reports of deaths the company linked to serious device problems: a patient who vomited blood as a family member struggled to restart a defective HVAD; a patient who bled out internally and died after implant surgery because a tube attached to the pump tore open; a patient whose heart tissue was left charred after an HVAD short-circuited and voltage surged through the pump.
The ineffective regulatory oversight of the HVAD is emblematic of larger, more systemic weaknesses.
For decades, the FDA and its Center for Devices and Radiological Health have been responsible for ensuring that high-risk medical devices are safe and effective. Yet they rely mostly on manufacturers to identify and correct problems. The agency says it can seize products, order injunctions against companies, or issue fines, but it rarely does so, preferring instead for companies to make fixes voluntarily.
When federal investigators found repeated manufacturing issues with the HVAD for years, the FDA didn’t penalize the company, even as the company issued 15 serious recalls of the device starting in 2014, the most of any single high-risk device in the FDA’s database. Thousands of patients with recalled models needed to have external HVAD parts replaced or take extra caution while handling their devices and monitor them for signs of malfunctions that could cause injury or death.
Meanwhile, the processes to inform the public through formal FDA notices and messages to health care providers repeatedly failed and left patients in the dark about known problems with the HVAD.
“Patients have no idea, and they rely on the FDA to ensure the safety and effectiveness of high-risk devices,” said Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies medical device regulation. “How can you not take action on a warning letter with these serious issues with very sick patients?”
In response to ProPublica’s findings, the FDA said it had been closely monitoring issues with the HVAD. It said that after Medtronic acquired HeartWare in 2016, it met with the company more than 100 times to ensure problems were being fixed and to review safety concerns related to the heart pump. The agency also said it initiated formal reviews of new device modifications and continually tracked whether the HVAD had a “reasonable assurance of safety and effectiveness.”
“Our decisions that we made along the way have always been patient focused,” said Dr. William Maisel, director of product evaluation and quality at the FDA’s device division. He added that more than 80% of companies fix their problems by the time the FDA reinspects.
That did not happen with the HVAD. In 2016 and 2018, inspectors found that issues detailed in the 2014 warning letter remained unresolved. Medtronic told the FDA last year that it had fixed the problems, but, before the agency could verify the claim, inspections were paused because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In June, Medtronic stopped HVAD sales and implants. The company conceded that a competing device was safer after a new study showed the HVAD had higher rates of death and neurological injury. Medtronic also cited a 12-year-old problem with its devices not restarting if they disconnect from power, leaving patients’ hearts without support.
Medtronic declined to make Geoffrey Martha, CEO, or Nnamdi Njoku, president of mechanical heart support, available for interviews. In an email, a spokesperson said, “There is nothing more important to Medtronic than the safety and well-being of patients.”
The email continued: “Medtronic takes this matter very seriously and, over the past five years, we have worked closely with FDA and engaged external experts to resolve the issues noted in the warning letter. FDA is aware of the steps Medtronic has taken to address the underlying concerns.”
The company said it will have a support system in place for the 4,000 patients worldwide and 2,000 in the United States who still rely on the HVAD. Medtronic will station 20 specialists across the globe to help with device maintenance and patient education. A centralized engineering team will provide technical support and troubleshooting for patients and medical staff. Medtronic said it will offer financial assistance if insurance doesn’t fully cover the surgery to replace a device with a competing product, but only if a doctor decides it’s medically necessary.
Patients with HVADs have little choice but to hope the devices keep working: The surgery to remove HVADs is so risky that both Medtronic and the FDA advise against it. The device is meant to be left in place until its wearer gets a heart transplant. Or dies.