Baltimore man bets life on new heart-assist pump

Experimental device is tested in UM patient

August 20, 2005|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Shawn Henson was fading fast.

Four days after his first wedding anniversary, a failing heart had turned his once-confident walk to a shuffle. His legs swelled. Within weeks, he was all but confined to bed.

Henson, 40, needed a heart transplant.

But as an interim step, the slightly built Baltimore warehouse supervisor chose to become the first person in the United States to receive a new-generation heart pump that physicians hope could eventually be a transplant alternative.

"I'm almost back to my old self," Henson said yesterday at a news conference with his wife, Alaphia, little more than a month after his operation at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

"It's a beautiful thing."

How Henson will fare over time is unclear. He's one of just over 30 people in the world to receive the VentrAssist, an implantable 10-ounce device made by the Australian firm Ventracor, that is designed to help a weakened heart.

But Henson's surgeon, Dr. Bartley P. Griffith, and other physicians have high hopes for this new generation of smaller, lighter, simpler heart-assist devices.

They believe the new pumps will be more durable and lead to fewer complications than the earlier models.

Under development by at least seven companies, these pumps are the legacy of a research drive that began during the Kennedy administration with the original goal of creating an artificial heart.

Today, congestive heart failure affects nearly 5 million Americans, with 550,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to the American Heart Association. Heart problems of all kinds are still the nation's No. 1 killer.

But physicians and engineers - discouraged by infections, strokes and other complications that caused high mortality rates with the first artificial hearts - have turned their efforts to simpler heart-assist pumps instead.

The UM Medical Center has been heavily involved in testing these devices. Among them is another small, new-generation pump, called the Jarvik 2000, which uses a turbine motor and is about the size of a "D" battery - small enough to fit inside the heart's left ventricle.

Lighter and quieter

The VentrAssist that doctors gave Henson uses a slightly different approach. Like many of its predecessors, it's inserted into the abdomen and connected to the heart and aorta with tubes.

Unlike the early pumps - at least one of which resembles the piping under a kitchen sink - the new pumps are quieter and more comfortable for patients, weighing ounces rather than pounds. They also have fewer parts, so engineers hope they'll be less likely to wear out.

The VentrAssist, for example, uses only one moving part to draw blood from the heart through the pump and into the aorta. Its "impeller" is made up of small blades suspended in blood that rotate when signaled by an electrical current.

It also runs at a slower speed than the Jarvik.

Henson's physicians are studying whether that will cause less damage to blood cells, which can break apart when struck, as well as fewer blood clots from heat buildup.

The Food and Drug Administration generally requires such devices to be tested first as a short-term "bridge" for patients awaiting transplants, and only then for long-term "destination" therapy if they work well.

Pumps are not appropriate for all patients, doctors say, and are definitely not a panacea. Patients get them only when their hearts are failing and other therapies - such as drugs - are no longer working.

Many patients are too sick, even with the help of the devices, to survive long enough for a transplant.

"You still have bodies that need to survive around these things," said Dr. John V. Conte, a Johns Hopkins University cardiac surgeon who runs that hospital's heart and lung transplant division. "The people who do well [on heart pumps] are not the people who come in on death's door."

Often, he said, patients are too weak, with gastrointestinal systems that can't absorb nutrients and other problems.

Luckily, Henson was otherwise relatively healthy when his heart began failing rapidly - for an unknown reason.

Slightly built, at 5-feet-9 and about 140 pounds, he wasn't a good candidate for two bulkier, first-generation devices that UM offered.

And he couldn't have the Jarvik 2000 because the hospital's clinical trial for that device was closed to new patients when he needed a heart pump.

So physicians suggested the VentrAssist.

Yesterday, wearing a blue-and-white striped Izod golf shirt over his pajamas, Henson proudly showed off the early results of his July 14 surgery at a news conference.

He carried the VentrAssist's battery pack in a blue shoulder bag the size of a lunch bucket, with a well-insulated cord that looped from the bag under his pajama top to the implanted pump.

`Being very careful'

Afterward, he put the pack in a roller-bag and walked hand-in-hand with his wife to his hospital room, where he continues to stay until physicians, Ventracor and the FDA decide he's well enough to leave.

"We're being very careful because it's in trial," said his cardiologist, Dr. Erika D. Feller. To prove he can properly care for himself and the device, Henson keeps a journal of his daily activities - checking off items such as whether he has showered.

Shawn and Alaphia Henson, who are raising three boys, are now debating when and where to take a deferred trip - in Las Vegas, where they had planned to go originally, or closer to home in case the call for a transplant comes.

"Vegas has been put on hold for a while," Henson said, glancing playfully at his wife, "but there's always Atlantic City."

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