He Supports Heart-Pump Patients With Hugs, Hope and More
One in an ongoing series.
Tim Robbins is the coordinator of Einstein Healthcare Network’s VAD Program. But the administrative title belies the role he fills for patients with advanced heart disease: he’s a hand-holder and a hugger; a dispenser of hope and a restorer of dreams; and an occasional supplier of forbidden treats to patients whose spirits are sagging.
A ventricular assist device (VAD) is an implanted pump that supports heart function. It’s used as long-term treatment for heart failure and a bridge to heart transplant for eligible patients.
Robbins oversees all non-medical aspects of the program, to ensure that it meets regulatory requirements and medical measures. He calibrates the device itself; does training and education inside and outside of the hospital; handles massive amounts of mandatory paperwork; and conducts research. Most importantly, Robbins is the patients’ guide and guardian angel throughout the process.
“What I love about this job is the complexity and the long-term relationships. On the one hand, it’s very technical and on the other, it’s very human,” says Robbins, a former ICU nurse.
“The most rewarding is the opportunity to engage with patients,” he says. “I’m with them through the OR, through the ICU, through the step-down recovery. I go to their houses, go to the support group, I see them in the office, I get invited to weddings and birthday parties.”
One of those birthday parties was for patient Trish Milligan, who gets emotional when she talks about Robbins. “He’s just there for us, no matter what,” she says. “He sat at the side of my bed and held me in his arms. He’s just a one-of-a-kind guy.” He also got her a Pepsi and French fries when post-procedure complications left her feeling distraught.
Says Robbins: “If you’re in the hospital for weeks and you’re eating hospital food, it gets to be old. I’m usually the one who will get them a chocolate-covered pretzel or a piece of candy. So, yes, I cheat for them.”
Patients with severe heart failure are so fatigued and short of breath that their lives are sidelined; without intervention, they won’t survive for long. The VAD restores blood flow and the energy to resume normal activities. But Robbins prods them to aspire to more than just survival.
“When I meet with them, I ask, ‘What’s really important to you that you can’t do today?’ And I work towards helping them reach that goal,” Robbins says. For Milligan, it was participating in a 5K fundraising walk for breast cancer. For another patient, it was returning to work as a cook at a diner. For another, it was being able to play a bass again. They all accomplished their goals.
“I love to brag about our advanced heart failure team,” Robbins says. Einstein performs between seven and ten VAD procedures a year. “We do some of the leading therapies that are in the world and we have phenomenal outcomes,” he says.
Robbins appreciates how critical it is to have emotional support during a medical crisis; his family has been on the other side of the equation. In 2009, his wife of one year was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “I’ve been helped many a time myself,” he says. His wife is now cancer free. They have three children.
But Robbins’ commitment to helping people precedes, and transcends, his job. He’s traveled to Mexico and Zambia with his church, bringing supplies and doing construction, and helps elderly congregants do home repairs. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people who are in an uncomfortable place,” he says.
Robbins helps Einstein VAD patients regain health and restore hope. “I want them to return to living, not just being alive,” he says. He may be the coordinator of the VAD program, but to patients, he’s also the soul.