Sometime this week, 51-year-old Alvin Carter will leave the Mayo Clinic with a man-made heart and a power pack, ushering in a new era in Minnesota medicine.
In March, Carter became the first patient in Minnesota -- and one of 1,000 in the world -- to receive a portable artificial heart that won't keep him tethered to a hospital.
Now Mayo and two other Minnesota hospitals -- Abbott Northwestern and the University of Minnesota -- are all starting programs to make the device available to their patients.
The mechanical heart, made by a company called SynCardia, is designed to keep patients alive until they can get a human heart transplant. The device should allow Carter, who lives in Michigan, to live a normal life while he waits for a donor heart, said his surgeon, Dr. Lyle Joyce. "That's the exciting thing," said Joyce. "Now we can send them home."
After decades of research, the artificial heart has finally hit prime time, Joyce says. And he should know. He was one of the surgeons who made headlines in Utah in 1982, when they implanted the Jarvik 7 artificial heart in a Seattle dentist named Barney Clark. Clark, who was 61, died after 112 days without ever leaving the hospital.
A lot has changed since then, says Joyce. At the time, scientists hoped to build a permanent heart that could replace the human heart, he said. It didn't pan out.
Among other things, he said, the early artificial hearts were powered by a 400-pound machine known as "big blue," which meant that patients could never leave the hospital.
Smaller, but not perfect
In the meantime, he said, doctors found that a simpler device, which assists only the left side of the heart, could buy many patients extra time while they waited for a transplant. Those units -- left-ventricular-assist-devices, or LVADs -- operate with portable power packs, so patients could go home.
But they don't work on patients with more complex heart problems, Joyce said. Carter, who works for a trucking supply company and considered himself pretty healthy, developed a condition called amyloidosis, a blood disorder that can damage the heart and other organs.
By December, Carter said, he needed a wheelchair to get through airports.
"He was very sick, very short of breath," Joyce said. Carter needed a new heart; but the wait can be years.
So he agreed to the mechanical heart, which costs about $125,000. Joyce, who had been waiting for the right candidate, implanted the device in early March.
"Within a week he was walking around and exercising," Joyce said. Other than going underwater, he noted, patients "can do just about anything they want to do."
Carter, who carries the power unit in a backpack, says he's trying to build back his strength. "It's different from the real heart," he said. For one thing, the pumping sound is audible around the clock. "I'm used to it now," he said, adding that he's learned to sleep through the noise. "It [doesn't] bother me at all -- you got to live."
At this point, only a small number of patients are likely to be candidates for the total artificial heart, said Dr. Peter Eckman, a heart transplant specialist at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview. "The market for this, so to speak, is limited," he said.
Nevertheless, both the university and Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis are gearing up to do the implants as well.
Hospitals are ready to go
"We've gone through all the training, we have it on the shelf," said Eckman. "All three of these centers have been looking for patients. Mayo found the first one."
Asked why Minnesota needs three centers, within 90 miles, implanting artificial hearts, Eckman laughed.
"That's a bit of a hot potato," he said. "I've obviously got a dog in the fight. We look at it as an extension of the program we already offer."
Joyce, who has worked at both Abbott and the U, says the demand may start out small, but may grow over time. "I do see this as a turning point," he said. "It's great to see it back in the arena again."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384