'Helping patients cheat death': Intermountain artificial heart program celebrates 20 years
Murray • Norm Corbridge had been living with heart disease for 20 years when his doctor suggested an artificial heart.
"I thought about them ripping out my poor, wounded heart and putting in a machine," he said. But instead, surgeons implanted a pump to help his heart circulate blood. Corbridge said Tuesday it's changed his life.
"Every morning I wake up and I look over at my wife of 63 years and I'm just so thankful for this extra time," he said. "I look forward to every day, eating breakfast and playing footsie under the table."
Utah has a long history of advancements in artificial-heart research, and on Tuesday, Intermountain Medical Center marked the 20th anniversary of its artificial-heart program.
"We're able to help patients cheat death from heart failure," said surgical director Bruce Reid. Heart disease is the country's No. 1 killer.
Intermountain surgeons have implanted 572 devices, and the program has been the first to use several new innovations.
"The early-days pumps looked very shiny, but they were difficult to use, difficult to implant," said Brad Rasmusson, the program's critical care director.
Even in 2001, the devices were heavy metal discs about the diameter of a softball, placed in the upper abdomen with tubes attached to the heart. Since then, the implants have shrunk to the size of a golf ball with a exterior power pack that can be worn in a vest.
"We've gone from eight-track to iPod," Reid said.
Next up are smaller power packs, especially for full artificial hearts.
The program started about a decade after the world's first artificial-heart transplant at the University of Utah. Two years later, Intermountain doctors performed the second full artificial-heart transplant in Utah on patient Al Marsden, who lived with the heart for 133 days until he received a transplant. He's now retired in Idaho.
Intermountain surgeons also performed the state's first implantation of a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) on Gayle Rumsey, an Idaho farmer who had a heart attack during a doctor's appointment.
"By golly, it saved my life," he said Tuesday. "If I was anyplace else, there was no way they could get me alive."
Rumsey used the pump until he was able to get a heart transplant, as do most artificial-heart program patients. A handful generally considered too old for a transplant, like Corbridge, use the pump for longer periods. He's had the pump for seven years in a week, he'll break the program's record for pump longevity.
Even temporarily, having a pump isn't easy.
"We take very seriously the fact that we only want to offer this therapy to people who we think are going to do well," said Deborah Budge, a heart-failure and transplant cardiologist.
Patients usually have end-stage heart failure and must exhaust all other options first, but still be healthy enough to withstand the surgery. Their lifestyle, nutrition and habits are also studied to make sure they'll have the greatest chance of doing well.
Now 23, Dylan Peterson was born with a weak heart after a virus attacked him in the womb. He managed the condition until the summer before his senior year in high school.
"I was playing baseball, and I had a hit and I was running to first base when I just blacked out," he said. "My heart just kind of gave up on me."
Doctors removed his heart and implanted an artificial one while Peterson waited for a transplant. Full artificial hearts require a hospital stay, and Peterson remembers being "in a lot of pain and drugged up" during those 227 days in 2009.
Since he's gotten a transplant, though, the floppy-haired Utah Valley University student said he's better than he was before and taking up road biking.
"I've gotten back the freedom I didn't have in the hospital," he said.
While many patients are sick for years, others find themselves blindsided by heart disease. Less than a year after his doctor declared him the "epitome of health," Richard Mascarenas, 66, said he was mowing his lawn when he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He chalked it up to cold medicine and moved onto the front yard, but later found he'd suffered a massive heart attack.
He now has an LVAD pump while he awaits a new heart.
"This is a life that almost wasn't," he said. "The doctors and the nurses and the LVAD people they are the heroes."