Heart Pioneer Values 'Second Chance'

Recipient of first self-contained artificial pump is 'getting used to not having a heartbeat'

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Robert L. Tools says his decision to become the first person in history to receive a self-contained artificial heart was an easy one.

"I had a choice to sit at home and die or come here and take a chance," Tools says. "It's better to take a chance than to sit and do nothing, and that's what I did."

Dressed in a blue shirt and a red tie, the 59-year-old Franklin, Ky. resident made his first public appearance today via closed circuit television at Jewish Hospital in Louisville.

"I knew I had no more chances to survive," Tools told a press conference. "It feels good to have a second chance. Until you get to that point, you realize you don't want to lose it."

Tools appeared frail, covering his neck with his hand to help project his voice, which was weakened by the tracheotomy that had helped him to breathe. He thanked the media for respecting his privacy since the titanium-and-plastic pump was implanted in his chest on July 2.

The baseball-sized device, developed by Abiomed, Inc. of Danvers, Mass., has an internal battery that can run the heart for about a half-hour.

The device can also be plugged into an electrical outlet or an external battery pack that holds two two-pound batteries. "They last about an hour a pound," says Dr. Laman Gray, Tools's University of Kentucky surgeon. "And the battery pack is easy on-and-off, but hard [to come] off by accident. And it also has a controller that tells you if there's a problem."

The new heart "feels real heavy," says Tools, a retired technical librarian. The biggest adjustment for him is "getting used to not having a heartbeat." Instead, he says, he hears the "whirring sound" of the device. "That makes me realize that I'm alive because I can hear it without a stethoscope."

Will Tools be able to go home soon?

"He had acute kidney failure, and today his kidney function is totally normal," Gray says. "He was in liver failure, and today his liver function is normal. He was the sickest you can get, and now we've gotten him back into a very healthy condition."

"But while he's stronger, he's quite skinny," Gray says. "He needs to gain 20 or 30 pounds."

"And while his organs have returned to normal, he needs lots of physical therapy; he need to gain lots of weight, and he needs to pay lots of attention to his nutrition," adds Dr. Rob Dowling, the other member of Tools's surgical team.

"His family needs to become familiar with the device," Dowling explains. "They need to know when to change the battery . . . troubleshoot things. They need to learn when to call for help."

"What we want to do is get him back to Franklin and get him back fishing," Gray adds. "This device will allow him to do anything he wants. He can go for a three-mile walk, he can go fishing."

"Our prime concern is his quality of life," Dowling agrees. "We want to get the patient back to his life, not just have him become a couch potato."

Gray says Tools is not yet a candidate for a heart transplant.

"He could be sometime in the future," he adds. "We estimate about four to six months to get him into that kind of shape. And yes, by the way, we do have that option."

Whatever the future, Tools is clear about his decision to get the implant.

"I realize that death is inevitable," he says, but "if there's an opportunity to extend it, take it."

Tools says he thought little about the attention he would receive. Rather, he focused on one thing when he awoke: "Am I going to make it?"

Now, he adds, he is "looking forward to returning to a normal life."

What To Do

For more on Tools' progress, see Jewish Hospital's Implantable Artificial Heart Project. The hospital also has a biography of him. And if you'd like to take a look at the device, visit AbioCor.

SOURCES: News teleconference with Robert L. Tools, artificial heart recipient; Laman Gray, M.D., and Robert D. Dowling, M.D., surgeons, University of Louisville, and Jewish Hospital, Louisville, Ky.

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