This is an archived article.

April 13, 1999

Portable pump implanted at UW Medical Center keeps Maple Valley man’s heart beating as he awaits a transplant

A 56-year-old Maple Valley man is about to leave UW Medical Center with the help of a new, fully portable heart pump that will assist his failing heart until a donor heart becomes available for transplant. The new device is the first of its type implanted in the Northwest since its recent approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Steve McGee was admitted to UW Medical Center on March 2 with severe heart failure, the result of cardiomyopathy, a degeneration of the heart muscle apparently caused by a virus. A former athlete, he has suffered from the condition since 1987, but only recently deteriorated to the point of requiring a heart transplant.

His doctors, cardiologist Dr. Daniel Fishbein and cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. William E. Curtis, determined that without the assistance of a heart pump he would not likely survive until a donor heart becomes available.

Curtis implanted the HeartMate LVAS (left ventricle assist system), which takes over the pumping function of the left ventricle. The largest chamber of the heart, the left ventricle pumps oxygenated blood from the lungs throughout the body.

The new portable version of the pump can be powered by batteries worn on a halter or belt, allowing the patient to move about independently. The failing heart remains in place. The earlier version of the HeartMate requires the patient to remain hospitalized and tethered to a large console while awaiting transplant.

“Mr. McGee has done very well with this device,” said Fishbein. “He is now a much healthier candidate for transplant. The use of this device is an important development in the Advanced Cardiac Disease Program at UW Medical Center.”

“I’m looking forward to being able to go the store, to a movie, or out to dinner,” said McGee, a retired marketing manager. “But most of all I’m looking forward to playing golf again.” From being bedridden, he is now doing daily physical therapy and is gradually increasing the distance he walks. He will likely be able to go home later this week, once he masters management of the new pump.

The HeartMate system includes a pump surgically implanted below the heart, a small computer worn on the outside of the body, batteries worn on a belt or halter, and an AC power unit utilized when the patient is not moving about, as well as to charge and test batteries. A backup emergency hand pump and a 24-hour emergency power pack for power outages are also part of the system.

UW heart doctors are gratified to have the HeartMate available for patients who might not otherwise survive until a donor heart is available. “We’re very excited about this,” said Curtis. “It’s a very important development for our program.”

UW Medical Center performs about 25 heart transplants annually, and has implanted a total of 22 HeartMates in the last two years.

Since McGee’s surgery in early March, two additional portable HeartMates have been implanted at the UW. Another half-dozen HeartMate recipients are currently in the hospital awaiting heart transplants with the help of the older, air-powered device.

“Technological advances have improved mechanical ventricular support to allow it to be used much more extensively than in past years,” said Curtis. “Not only is it being used in critically ill patients as a bridge to sustain them until transplant, but we are planning to participate in a clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to see whether this device can be used as a permanent implant in patients who do not meet the criteria to receive a donor heart.”

Because of the scarcity of donor organs, a large number of patients with severe heart failure cannot be transplanted, but could possibly survive longterm with the portable HeartMate.

The HeartMate is made by Thermo Cardio Systems, Inc. of Woburn, Mass.