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Man with artificial heart leaves hospital thanks to new device

December 5, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Doctors have put artificial hearts in patients hundreds of times. But traditionally, the patient is still tethered to a huge machine and can't move around.

Now, a portable device at UCLA is making it possible for Chad Washington, the hospital's first patient without a human heart, to go home.

Washington, 35, usually wears his heart on his sleeve, but these days he carries it in his backpack.

"This is my heart," he said, holding up his backpack. "This is part of it, and the rest is in here," he added with a pat to the chest.

In October, UCLA surgeons removed Washington's heart. It was actually a donor organ he received back in February.

"My body ended up rejecting the heart," Washington said.

Washington was born with a congenital heart condition that destroyed his first heart. When his donor heart failed, doctors needed a way to keep him alive until another one became available.

So Washington became the first UCLA patient to receive the SynCardia Temporary Total Artificial Heart.

"You always balance the risk of what's the alternative," said Dr. Richard Shermin. "The alternative for patients like this would be to die."

Dr. Murray Kwon's job was to remove his diseased heart and install the mechanical one.

"We take out most of the ventricles, which is the lower chamber of the heart, and leave just a rim of tissue that we can then sew this device onto," said Kwon.

Tubes run from Washington's chest to an air compressor. Blood flows at 120 beats per minute. Portable batteries power the device for two hours before Washington needs to plug in. It makes him fully mobile.

All hearts involve electricity and plumbing. The plumbing gets the blood pumping and electricity allows for muscle contractions of the heart. In Washington's case, his electrical system has been removed. If you hooked him up to an EKG, all you'd see is a flat line.

"We tell them very explicitly if anything happens, this is not something you can shock a heart out of rhythm, because there is not rhythm," said Dr. Ali Nsair.

But doctors say what this technology proves is you can take the heart out of the man, but not the man out of the heart.

"He still has that heart," said Shermin. "That's as much as in his mind."

Washington is grateful it's keeping him around for his 4-year-old son who, thinks the ticking sound is kind of neat.

"He likes it. He thinks it's cool, but he still thinks his toys are cooler," Washington said.

Washington was supposed to go home Thursday, but doctors wanted to keep him on IV blood thinners for one more day. The head of UCLA's cardiothoracic surgery program says he thinks the FDA will soon approve the device for long term use.


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