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It's the number one killer in America, but a brand-new, revolutionary device has the potential to save thousands battling heart disease.
News 11's Shelley Brown has this special report, The Heartsaver.
There are somewhere around 100,000 people in this country battling advanced heart failure. They all need new hearts, but only a couple thousand may actually get one.
In the meantime, while they wait, they could very well lose that battle.
Now, this device just approved by the food and drug administration is giving patients the lifeline they need to live a longer, healthier life.
Ric Graham of Grand Rapids, Michigan is 38-years-old. He's married to Kresta Graham and is the father of three beautiful little girls -- Alyssa, Alexis and Katie.
He looks healthy, but inside he's suffering. You see Ric has a broken heart. "I had a real hard time breathing," he says.
Seven years ago, doctors thought Ric had developed asthma, so they gave him some medications and put him on an inhaler.
Nothing was changing though. "I went back to the doctor the next day after Memorial day," Ric says, "and told them we got to figure this out because I was going to start a new job next week."
Ric never made it to that job.
An x-ray of his chest showed his heart was enlarged. At the age of 31, doctors diagnosed Ric with congestive heart failure. His heart was struggling to pump blood to the rest of his body. Ric explains, "It's just a virus that settled into my heart, enlarged it and weakened it." Heart disease doesn't run in his family. No one knows what caused it.
Ric started taking medications, but still was getting weaker and weaker. Something as simple as a morning shower would drain him of energy for the day. "I was embarrassed almost. You know, I would go to the grocery store, and I had to get one of those little motorized carts because I couldn't make it through the whole grocery store."
Like thousands of other Americans with end stage heart failure, Ric needs a new heart. Because of a limited number of organ donors, that could take weeks, months, even years. Ric's only option while awaiting the transplant was intravenous medications that confined him to his home.
Until a few weeks ago, when he was referred to the University of Michigan. UM Cardiac Surgeon Dr. Francis Pagani implanted a mechanical pump in Ric that is now pumping the blood through his heart.
Dr. Pagani explains, "This device was life-saving for him."
The HeartMate II, the first-of-its-kind design by Thoratec Corporation, just gained FDA approval. It's a revolutionary device Dr. Pagani says will now give patients like Ric --at risk of dying -- a lifeline, bridging the gap to transplantation.
Dr. Pagani and UM helped lead the national clinical trial that investigated the effectiveness of this new, mechanical heart technology. He says older technology that came out in the late '80s and early '90s had a lot of problems.
In the past, devices that assisted the heart were large. The new HeartMate II is much smaller and weighs just one pound. Until now, many women and smaller men that could have benefited couldn't get one because the devices were too big.
Here's how the HeartMate II works:
"We implant it in a space we create just below the abdominal wall," Pagani explains, "and one portion connects to the bottom of the heart we call the apex of the left ventricle. It drains blood from the main pumping chamber of the heart, pumps blood through an artificial tube, a graft, to what we call the ascending aorta, which is the main blood vessel of the body."
An electrical cable powers Ric's blood pump. It passes through his skin to a controller that he wears on his waist.
It runs off two batteries that allow Ric to get out of the house and live the normal, active lifestyle he once had. "We went shopping for an hour-and-a-half through Meijer the other day," Ric tells us.
Dr. Pagani says they're optimistic the HeartMate II could last five to ten years. "What this therapy allows us to do is support the patient in the healing process of the heart, and the heart can actually improve its function to the point that the device can be removed and they no longer need a heart transplant."
Ric may still need a transplant. Kresta, Ric's wife says, "Before, he couldn't go outside and play with the kids. Sometimes he couldn't make it to their school activities and stuff like that. Now he's able to, and it's really nice."
Ric adds, "As the pump continues to work, the rest of my organs -- now that they're getting more blood flow -- they're repairing themselves too. So it will be a better situation once I do go to a transplant."
A young man who may not have had a chance to live a normal life -- thanks to breakthrough technology-- is now getting one.
Doctors say recovery time for the device is six to eight weeks. It's covered by Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance. For more on the HeartMate II and how to prevent heart disease, visit the following links.
HeartHope.com is a is a network of healthcare professionals dedicated to advancing the treatment of heart failure.