The Ventricular Assist Device in the Life of the Child: A Phenomenological Pediatric Study

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What is it like for a child to live with an artificial heart? The use of some medical therapies in children requires developmental considerations, is associated with psychosocial consequences, and calls for ethical sensitivities. A critical case is the ventricular assist device (VAD), a mechanical pump used to support the functioning of a failing heart. As a pediatric therapy, the device can be used as a temporary solution for poor heart function, a bridge to transplantation or recovery, or as a destination therapy. While the mechanical-technical operation of the VAD is well understood, the clinical-technical aspects of young people living with this device are largely unexplored. Drawing on interviews of school-aged children, the aim of this phenomenological study is to explore how a VAD may structure or condition a child’s meaningful experience of their world outside the hospital. The driveline of an implanted VAD is the peripheral attachment, extruding through the skin to connect the controller-power supply. The materiality of the device may be interruptive, restrictive, and disturbing to the psycho-physical being and sense of self-identity of the child as a child. And while a child equipped with a VAD is not necessarily conspicuous among other children, the child may experience the device as an exposing presence, while living with the worry of a caregiver who takes on the role not simply of parent but of watchful health professional. A phenomenological understanding of the VAD should assist parents and caregiving health professionals knowing how to deal with specific issues arising in the life of the VAD child.

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