When Dan Riker and his wife, Robin, received an award from a Michigan cattle organization this fall, they couldn’t help but recognize the significance.
It symbolized more than just achievement in their industry.
It represented hope and second chances.
Just two years ago, Dan underwent a life-saving heart procedure. A doctor implanted a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD, into his chest to keep his heart pumping.
“The simple fact is, I would be dead without it,” Dan, 59, said.
That’s no exaggeration.
He suffered his first heart attack 10 years ago at a gas station. Quick action from those around him helped saved his life.
When he returned from the hospital after that incident, he got right back to work. He and his wife operate a small farm in Ionia, Michigan, where they keep cattle.
The first thing he did? Feed the cows.
He kept at the farm for years with no major problems.
“My heart was shot, but I was able to live with it,” Dan said.
Then, in 2018, trouble returned.
“We did our (cattle) shows and I told Robin we had to go to the hospital the day after our last show,” he said.
That decision saved his life.
He had heart failure.
Doctors at Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center decided an LVAD would be his best option.
The implanted mechanical device helps the heart pump blood throughout the body. It can be used temporarily to improve a person’s medical condition until a heart becomes available for transplantation, or it can be used long term.
“The LVAD is a great therapy for the proper candidate,” Spectrum Health cardiothoracic surgeon Marzia Leacche, MD, said. “It’s actually underutilized. Way more patients could benefit than are actually receiving it.”
Dr. Leacche, who will become surgical director for the Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Endowed Heart Transplant and Ventricular Assist Device Program on Jan. 1, 2021, quickly became a favorite of the Rikers for her willingness to listen to Robin’s observations and concerns when Dan couldn’t speak for himself.
“If you want somebody on your side, she’s the one,” Dan said.
Dan’s recovery proved difficult. His other health challenges—Parkinson’s disease and asthma—complicated matters. A blood clot in his arm led to the loss of a thumb.
For a full month after surgery, he was asleep.
The turning point came on his birthday, Nov. 18. He awoke wondering where he was and why he couldn’t move.
He would have to relearn things. How to walk, how to eat.
“The crew in therapy did very good work and they made it fun,” Dan said.
Still, there were hurdles.
“Dan wasn’t eating, he was losing weight,” Robin said.
He would eventually need a feeding tube. That’s a rare situation, however, as about 98% of LVAD patients go back to a normal lifestyle, Dr. Leacche said.
Dan said he has great confidence in the team at Meijer Heart Center.
“Listen to your doctors and trust your doctors,” he said. “They’re going to do the right thing.”
In his 141 days in the hospital, the brightest moment came when he got a visit from his collie, Sassie.
“There were a few few tears that flowed,” Dan said. “Even some of the nurses were crying.”
Dr. Leacche knew it would be a meaningful visit.
“Over the years, I took care of many sick patients,” she said. “And one of things that helps is when their pets are allowed to come to the hospital. It brings them comfort.”
Many of the team members at Meijer Heart Center remember Dan for the ever-present pictures of his cattle, which he kept at his bedside.
He even found a few kindred spirits in nurses who show cattle at local fairs.
The award Dan and Robin received in October from the Michigan Hereford Association is called the Hall of Merit Award. Through their ups and downs, the couple said caring for cattle has been their best therapy.