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With a mechanical heart, a patient goes home—and waits

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1999 - Winter


Everywhere Robert Kenyon goes these days a bundle of electrical wires connects him to a battery pack that powers an artificial heart embedded in the walls of his abdomen. His life literally depends on the device, a left ventricular assist system, or LVAS, designed to sustain heart patients until a donor heart becomes available. When Mr. Kenyon, who suffers from cardiomyopathy, a fatal degenerative heart disease, left Yale-New Haven Hospital in September, he became the first patient in New England and one of only about 20 around the country to return home with this type of device. Without it, his chances of surviving the wait for a scarce donor heart would be small. Since leaving the hospital, the life-sustaining booster for his diseased heart has allowed him to resume many aspects of a normal life.

“I’m fully employed,” says Mr. Kenyon, 60, a reinsurance broker who lives in Darien. “I work from a computer in my house, which I have been doing for the last 15 months. I’m still developing new business for my company.”

His need for a dependable power supply keeps him close to home, and his status at the top of the heart recipient waiting list keeps him no more than an hour’s drive away from New Haven. The batteries and backups he carries in a bag over his right shoulder have become his inseparable companions. His wife, Kathy, also carries spares in a backpack, and at home he plugs the artificial heart into a monitor that provides direct current.

The LVAS keeps Mr. Kenyon alive by providing support to the diseased left side of his heart, which pumps blood to the body. “The left heart has a real heavy load,” says John A. Elefteriades, M.D. ’76, HS ’76-83, professor and chief of cardiothoracic surgery. Working with George Tellides, M.D., Dr. Elefteriades implanted the device.

Some 28 years in the making, the LVAS is the latest generation of artificial hearts. Made by Novacor, a California-based division of Baxter Health Care Corporation, the LVAS received approval in September from the Food and Drug Administration as a bridge to transplant. In Europe, where the LVAS was approved for use several years ago, some patients have already lived up to three years connected to the device.

Mr. Kenyon received his LVAS under an experimental protocol during a five-hour operation that required the services of a dozen surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses and an engineer from Novacor. After a month in the hospital, Mr. Kenyon went home. “I’m glad this technology is available,” he says, “but I’ll be glad when I can get rid of it. This thing allows me to live at about 50 percent of where I was 10 years ago. I want to be at 90 percent.”

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