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Miracle Heart Pump

Implant gives dying patients new life

En español | "My heart was failing. I was dying. It was as simple as that," Bill Sowden, 80, remembers. "They told me I had four to six weeks to live. I began to put my affairs in order. I even arranged for the music I wanted performed at my funeral."

FDA approves small mechanical heart pump LVAD for those awaiting transplants

Bill and Diane Sowden have something to sing about after a heart pump implant saved his life. — Photo by Jenn Ackerman

That was more than five years ago. A recent Monday found Sowden at a three-hour rehearsal for Alive & Kickin', one of four vocal groups he sings in. When he's not preparing for a musical performance or heading out for dinner with his wife, Diane, he's developing a website for a small distribution company he founded.

See also: How does the heart pump work?

Sowden is alive and kicking today thanks to a miniature pump, called a left ventricle assist device, or LVAD, implanted just beneath his heart.

The device takes blood from the lower chamber of his heart and pumps it into the aorta, where it is delivered throughout the body. It's connected via a flexible wire that emerges from his abdomen and hooks into a controller and battery packs he carries in a shoulder holster. Sowden's pump is the same model that former Vice President Dick Cheney showed off on his recent book tour.

To date, more than 8,000 heart patients have received the HeartMate II, according to Thoratec, the California-based company that makes the device. The state-of-the-art pump costs $80,000. Surgical and medical costs associated with implanting it and monitoring patients drive the price tag higher. But both Medicare and private insurers cover the device for eligible patients.

The device offers fresh hope for people with heart failure, which occurs when the heart is no longer strong enough to pump blood normally. More than 5 million Americans suffer from heart failure. Sometimes called congestive heart failure, it's a progressive disease that robs the body's organs of the oxygenated blood they need. "It got so I couldn't walk more than a few steps without being short of breath," says Sowden. "I couldn't walk upstairs. I could hardly lift my arms."

The pump that's keeping Sowden alive is the latest in a long line of devices designed to take over for faltering hearts. The task hasn't been easy. "Early pumps were too big to fit in smaller patients, including many women, and they weren't very durable, wearing out after only about two years," says Andrew Boyle, M.D., medical director of the heart failure, heart transplant and mechanical circulatory support programs at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee.

Next: Risk of complications has dropped with new heart pump. >>

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