Smaller device lends time to heart-transplant patients


Out of those 3,000, about 2,100 will receive a donor heart. But that still leaves hundreds of people dying each year as they wait for a perfect match. Now a new artificial heart may give these patients and thousands more new hope for survival.

Charles Okeke was known as "the man without a heart."

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

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

"Anytime you move, you've got to be very conscious of 'OK, I've got something attached to me,'" said Okeke.

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

"I told him many times, 'Charles, we're learning from you,'" said Dr. Francisco Arabia, Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. Arabia followed Okeke's every step.

Including the step he made when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a 13-pound backpack-sized version of Big Blue called the "Freedom Driver" that allowed Okeke 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.

Okeke lived at home with the backpack for 263 days.

"Fortunately, everything worked out, and we found a perfect donor," said Arabia.

Okeke received a new heart and a new kidney. Today, the husband and father of three is back where he belongs, not "missing a beat."

It's estimated that up to 40,000 patients each year would benefit from a heart transplant, 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)

Copyright © 2023 KABC Television, LLC. All rights reserved.