Man Goes Home With "Total Artificial Heart"

For nearly two years, 43-year-old Charles Okeke has tried to live a normal life in the hospital tethered to a 400-lb. machine.

"It sort of overwhelms you to think, 'I'm stuck to a machine,'" he says.

Okeke was barely 30 when a blood clot destroyed his heart, reports CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton. He had a transplant and for 10 years life was good for this computer consultant and father of three.

But in 2008 his body rejected that heart and at that time another transplant was out of the question.

Okeke now has what is called a "total artificial heart." Both ventricles were removed along with four valves. Connector tubes were sewn in. It pumps blood just like a human heart.

"There is an artificial heart inside of me that the tubes connect to from this exit site right here," he says while pointing to the tubes.

"Here is an artificial heart inside of me," says Okeke. "The tubes connect from this exit site[.]"

When asked about the moment he realized he had a total artificial heart, Okeke says, "For the longest time I could not physically put my hand to my chest because it felt so weird."

But Okeke's life is about to be transformed. The FDA has just approved this backpack-sized device that runs on batteries and weighs just 13 lbs. It's the first portable technology to support the entire artificial heart.

"Sensors that used to be the size of a can of soup are now about the size of a quarter," says Syncardia's Steven Langford. "That leap has enabled us to downsize the entire console."

Okeke is the first heart patient in the country to test the "freedom driver."

There are worries. Will this device supply enough power to the heart so the liver and kidneys also function? Will Okeke trust his heart to this machine?

"How comfortable he feels with the device, that's going to be as important as all the other organs working," says the Mayo Clinic's cardiothoracic surgery chair Dr. Francisco Arabia.

After a few more weeks readjusting the "freedom driver," Okeke experiences freedom for the first time in years, leaving the hospital with a hero's goodbye as hundreds of people wished him well.

At home, Okeke hugged his kids. "I am about as happy of a person as you can have right now," says Okeke. "To be able to sleep in my own bed after two years on a hospital bed, you can't imagine."

The Okekes know they're not home free. Charles will have to work hard to maintain his health as he awaits a new heart, but if the right match is not found, doctors say he could live indefinitely on this device.

The Syncardia total artificial heart costs about $125,000 and about $18,000 a year to maintain.
  • Jennifer Ashton

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