SAN DIEGO — John Merrill glanced at the battery light on his ventricular heart pump Wednesday and realized he was running out of time.
Exactly how long, he didn’t know. The warning light indicated less than an hour before the pump — and his heart — would come to a standstill.
The 79-year-old El Cajon clarinetist was preparing to perform in a concert at Balboa Park that evening and had unfortunately forgotten his replacement batteries at home.
He survived to tell his tale, thanks to the quick thinking and swift actions of hospital staff and paramedics, Merrill said Thursday.
He is one of just 60 people in the county and 4,000 worldwide with a HeartMate II Left Ventricular Assist Device, or LVAD, that maintains the pumping ability of a heart that can’t work on its own.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney had the lightweight device implanted in his chest last month. The pump relies on an external battery that needs to be changed every few hours.
Merrill, dressed in lederhosen for his El Cajon German Band performance at the Organ Pavilion, decided against driving home for a new battery because of the rush hour traffic.
Instead, he drove to the closest hospital, Scripps Mercy in Hillcrest, only to find that it doesn’t supply batteries for the rare device.
That could be found only at Sharp Memorial Hospital in Serra Mesa, which has been a pioneer in performing the surgical implant.
The Scripps Mercy staff got an ambulance and — lucky for Merrill — it was staffed with one of the few paramedics at San Diego Medical Services who had just completed LVAD training and understood the situation.
“They were zinging up the freeway,” Merrill said. “Just as the doors of the ambulance opened, the battery warning system started beeping.” He had less than 15 minutes left.
“I said, ‘Wow, we’re just in time!’ ”
The medical staff was waiting in the parking lot, and nurse Stephen Houlahan rushed into the back of the ambulance and handed Merrill a replacement battery. He hooked it up himself.
Houlahan said that as the team waited for the ambulance, they wondered whether they would find Merrill unconscious or worse. Instead, they found a fellow in German lederhosen eager for a new battery so he could get back to the performance.
“He was very relieved to see me,” Houlahan said.
Cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Walter Dembitsky had performed the surgery on Merrill a year ago and said on Thursday he wasn’t surprised to hear about the close call and calm under pressure.
Merrill had been an Air Force fighter pilot in Vietnam and had survived a crash, Dembitsky said.
“He was in a flaming airplane on a runway and ejected out of it. That was how he survived,” Dembitsky said. “He’s like a Diehard battery himself.”
San Diego Medical Services spokeswoman Reema Makani said the incident is a good example of why people should call 911 during medical emergencies.
Merrill said he’s still kicking himself for forgetting the battery at home. He said he’s looking forward to getting a newer version Friday that will last for about 10 hours instead of four.