Trish Milligan and Ventricular Assist Device Program Coordinator Tim Robbins

Heart Pump Restored Her Active Life

By on 12/02/2019

Trish Milligan’s life was a joyful whirlwind of activity:  she taught Bible studies, visited and cooked for shut-ins, volunteered in other ways with her church and nonprofit groups, and loved taking her children and grandchildren on shopping sprees.

So when severe heart disease made those activities impossible, she wondered: what’s the point of carrying on?

Milligan couldn’t walk more than a few steps without needing to stop to catch her breath.  She had to retire from a job she loved as a psychiatric aide at Norristown State Hospital. She couldn’t drive to South Carolina on a whim to visit family. She was mostly confined to sitting home, watching TV.

“I had no life at all,” she says.

Milligan was 70 and had already survived breast cancer. Perhaps it was time to let go. 

Family Wouldn’t Give Up

But Milligan’s large and loving family – brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews – wouldn’t hear of it. Many of them accompanied her to an appointment with cardiologist Behnam Bozorgnia, MD, at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia to discuss receiving an implanted ventricular assist device (VAD), a pump that supports heart function.

“I was pleasantly surprised when she showed up with enough loved ones to fill the entire waiting room,” says Dr. Bozorgnia, Director of Heart Failure and Mechanical Circulatory Support at Einstein.  “We’re always excited to see support from family and friends to assist with patients during challenging times.”

Milligan received her VAD in July 2018. The implanted pump initially was used as an interim measure for patients waiting for a heart transplant. Now it’s also used as long-term treatment for patients who aren’t candidates for transplant, such as Milligan.

Climbing Stairs, Walking Miles

When Milligan returned home from rehabilitation, she faced her first test: the stairs to the second floor. She walked up without once having to stop to catch her breath. “I stood at the top of the steps and praised God,” she recalls.

In June of this year, with her strength fully returned, she experienced an even more dramatic milestone: she walked three miles with friends and family in the Sista Strut breast cancer walk, to heighten awareness of breast cancer in women of color.

Milligan has become an ambassador for the VAD program, attending support group sessions to share her experience and provide encouragement to other patients and would-be patients. She gushes with praise about it, but she gets especially emotional when talking about VAD Program Coordinator Tim Robbins.

Recovery Support (and Snacks)

Milligan’s recovery was beset with complications, and when she was most discouraged, Robbins would do anything to get her through.

When she lost her appetite and wasn’t eating the food her family brought to the hospital, for instance, Robbins stepped in. “I had a craving for French fries, and he put me in a wheelchair and took me to the cafeteria so I could get some French fries,” she says. “I’ll never forget those French fries.” After that, she started eating again.

“Yes, I’m the one who cheats for them,” Robbins recalls with a chuckle. “When patients are at a really low point, sometimes getting them a snack can help.”

“He’s just there for us, no matter what. You can talk to him about anything,” Milligan says, choking up.  “He sat at the side of my bed and held me in his arms. He’s just a one-of-a-kind guy.”

From Sickness to Service

Thanks to Einstein’s VAD program, and especially to Robbins, of course, Trish Milligan has her life back. She’s resumed her mission of service to St.  Ebenezer Methodist Church, to her hometown community of Norristown, and to her family. She works for the cause of curing breast cancer, in part through Praise is the Cure, a Jenkintown organization that advocates for black women with breast cancer.

And now she has added support for the VAD program at Einstein.

 “This staff, the nurses, the therapists, the doctors – are all fantastic. I appreciate them all,” she says. “I don’t know where I’d be without them.”

Find out more about Einstein Heart and Vascular Care.

Photo: Trish Milligan with VAD Program Coordinator Tim Robbins

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