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Waiting for a heart, broker beats the odds

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2002 - Spring


A Connecticut man sets record for survival on heart pump and receives a gift of life.

In his 63 years Robert “Pete” Kenyon has been a Navy officer, an amateur race car driver and, most recently, a reinsurance broker. As someone who makes his living assessing risk, he surely knew the odds as he reached a difficult milestone last year. In August, he became the longest-surviving recipient in the United States of a mechanical pump that replaced the diseased left side of his heart.

At that point he had lived three years on the pump, the outer limits of the manufacturer’s warranty. Novacor’s left ventricular assist system (LVAS) remained in place because none of more than a dozen hearts offered to Kenyon from the organ sharing network had been immunologically compatible.

“We were getting increasingly concerned communications from the engineers at Novacor,” said John A. Elefteriades, M.D. ’76, HS ’83, who implanted the device. By October Kenyon’s physicians decided the pump should be replaced. “The machine was making a lot of abnormal noises, and it was misfiring,” Kenyon said.

He prevailed upon the doctors to wait until the Christmas holidays, when his chances of getting a new heart would increase. On New Year’s Eve, Kenyon went into the operating room, where an expected problem turned out to be even worse than imagined. “The LVAS had been in such a long time that the body’s fibrous tissue had virtually encased it,” Elefteriades said. The device was replaced with an identical, semi-permanent pump.

In a fateful turn of events, another donor heart became available 36 hours later—and this time it matched. Despite having just undergone the ordeal of surgery to implant the new LVAS, Kenyon seized the opportunity. “Dr. Elefteriades felt I was strong enough to undergo surgery, so off we went,” Kenyon said.

From the moment of the donor’s death, a deadline loomed. For the transplant to succeed, the donated heart had to be pumping in the recipient’s chest within four hours. Fortunately, the surgeons had freed the three-year-old LVAS from his tissue the day before. “I do not think we could have gotten everything out fast enough for the heart to be viable,” Elefteriades said.

Three more surgeries followed the heart transplant. A lung infection had to be treated, a pacemaker was installed and Kenyon’s gall bladder had to be removed.

After recuperating from five surgeries in the space of a few weeks, Kenyon is back at work part time, telecommuting from his home office in Darien. “I usually get tossed out of bed at nine o’clock in the morning,” he said with a grin at his wife, Kathy, during an interview in February. “I go down the hall to my office and do my office work. My wife doesn’t like me sitting there for hours at the computer. She wants me up and around. I’m trying to walk as much as possible. I’ll take a nap and read. My appetite is coming back but I can’t eat the quantities of food that I used to.”

He plans to return to a childhood sport learned on frozen ponds—ice hockey. The man whose heart now beats inside Kenyon’s chest was a 30-year-old hockey coach from the Boston area who died of a brain aneurysm. “I want to thank the donor’s family for giving me the gift of life,” Kenyon said.

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