New machine helps patients waiting for a heart transplant

Right now, there are about 3,000 people waiting for a heart transplant in the United States.

On average, about 2,100 will receive a donor heart.

That leaves hundreds of people dying each year, waiting for their perfect match.

Now, a new artificial heart may give these patients, and thousands more, new hope for a new heart.

Charles Okeke was known as the man without a heart.

Okeke says, "I was here for two years on a device called Big Blue.”

Charles was hooked up to Big Blue night and day for 600 days. Charles’ heart failed when his own antibodies attacked it, so Big Blue stepped in. An artificial heart was implanted into Charles, tethered to the 400 pound machine that pumped 9.5 liters of blood into Charles’ heart per day.

"Anytime you move, you've got to be very conscious. Ok, I've got something attached to me."

For two years, he ate, slept, played and lived at the hospital.

Dr. Francisco Arabia, Director of Heart Transplant at Mayo Clinic, says, "I told him many times, 'Charles, we're learning from you."

Dr. Arabia followed Charles’ every step, including the step he made when the FDA approved a thirteen pound backpack-sized version of Big Blue, which allowed Charles to finally go home, becoming the first patient in the U.S. to live at home using an artificial heart.

The Freedom Driver runs on batteries and connects to the artificial heart by two tubes that enter the body through the abdominal wall. The artificial heart replaces both failing heart ventricles and the four heart valves.

Charles lived at home with the backpack for 263 days, and then, Charles received a new heart and a new kidney.

Today, this husband and father of three is back where he belongs, not missing a beat.

It is estimated that up to 40,000 patients each year would benefit from heart transplants, but the high costs preclude patients from being transplant candidates.

Dr. Arabia hopes this machine will change that.


BACKGROUND: A heart transplant is an operation in which a failing heart is replaced with a healthier, donor heart. This surgery is usually reserved for people who have tried medications or other surgeries but haven't improved sufficiently. Heart failure can be caused by coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy, valvular heart disease, a congenital heart defect, or a previous failed heart transplant. For those patients who can't have a transplant, another option may be a ventricular assist device (VAD). A VAD is a miniature pump implanted in the patient's chest that helps pump blood through the body. VADs are commonly used as a temporary treatment for people waiting for a heart transplant but are increasingly being used as a permanent treatment for heart failure.
(SOURCE: Mayo Clinic)

DONOR HEARTS: Patients who are eligible for a heart transplant are placed on a waiting list for a donor heart. Organs are matched for blood type and size of donor and recipient. About 3,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list for a heart transplant on any given day. About 2,000 donor hearts are available each year. Wait times may vary from days to several months.
(SOURCE: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)

LIVING WITHOUT A HEART: Charles Okeke was known as "the man without a heart" as he waited about two years for a donor heart. His heart failed when his own antibodies attacked it. Okeke lived in the hospital for two years and was attached to a device known as "Big Blue." He was attached to this large, mobile device night and day for 600 days. Big Blue pumped nine and a half liters of blood into Okeke a day, but it was still a rather cumbersome device. Dr. Francisco Arabia, of the Mayo Clinic, followed Okeke very closely all the way to the day that he was able to leave the hospital and return home to his family. The FDA approved a 13-pound, backpack-sized version of Big Blue, allowing Okeke to move with ease and become the first patient in the United States to live at home with an artificial heart. This device is called the Freedom Driver, and it runs on batteries, which connect to the artificial heart by two tubes that enter the body through the abdominal wall. Okeke did end up receiving a new heart and a new kidney.
(SOURCE: Mayo Clinic)

Lynn Closway
Mayo Clinic
Phoenix, AZ

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