7 Stories of Hope: ‘It’s Given Me My Life Back’ — Backpack-size portable heart driver fills in for a transplant
– BY ROB WALKER –
For the first time in two years, Paula Heggins was home for the holidays. She’d spent the previous two in the hospital dealing with a hereditary heart condition that came close to taking her life.
“This was a wonderful year for me,” she said. “I’m blessed.”
Heggins, 53, is on the list for a heart transplant, yet there are far too few hearts available to meet the increasing demand. But some remarkable advances in medical science offer hope.
Increasingly, patients with advanced heart failure like Heggins are receiving artificial hearts as a bridge to a transplant. She received one in 2010. Unfortunately, those hearts had been tethered to a 600-pound machine Heggins calls “big blue,” which drives the pump. With “big blue,” you don’t go farther than a short stroll inside the hospital.
Since 2010, however, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Pauley Heart Center has been among two dozen medical centers in the U.S. conducting trials on the Freedom Portable Driver for artificial hearts. The driver offers technological and quality-of-life advances, while signaling a time when artificial hearts may be a permanent replacement for the real thing.
The portable driver is a wearable power supply small enough to fit inside a backpack or shoulder bag. Heggins carries hers in a book bag or sometimes on a rolling cart. It is powered by two lithium-ion batteries that are recharged through a standard electrical outlet or even the cigarette-lighter adapter in a car.
Dr. Vigneshwar Kasirajan, chairman of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at VCU’s Pauley Heart Center, said the VCU center has used the driver in 12 patients since it began trials. Three, including Heggins, are using it at home today.
The artificial heart costs more than $100,000, and maintaining it is expensive, but not extraordinary when compared with older therapies. “People with this degree of vascular disease often have to be hospitalized for several days every few months,” sometimes in intensive care, Kasirajan said. “That is very costly, too, and for those people, quality of life is often very poor. But technology is improving rapidly and as it improves, the cost should come down.”
Technology alone isn’t enough, Heggins said. But it is a lifesaver.
“Everyone in my life, especially my husband and son and close friends, are my support team. They are all involved in this,” she says. “If you want to live, sometimes you have to adapt to new norms, and that is what we are doing. It’s given me my life back.”
Rob Walker, the former editor of Richmond Law Magazine and a former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, is a Richmond-based freelance writer/editor.