Experimental pump keeps children alive to receive heart transplant

Leanny Rodriguez is a healthy four-year-old after an experimental device known as a Berlin Heart helped her survive long enough to get a heart transplant.

There is new research on a remarkable medical device that helps children waiting for heart transplants. A study released Wednesday shows that the device can drastically improve a child's chance of survival.

CBS News revisited one little girl, for whom the device has been a life-saver.

Three years ago, Leanny Rodriguez was a very sick baby. Her heart was failing and the prognosis was poor. Her mother, Suany, watched helplessly.

"She was getting worse and worse very soon," Suany recalled. "They say she won't make it to wait for a heart transplant -- because she is getting sicker and sicker every day.

But Leanny was lucky enough to get an experimental device called the Berlin Heart.

The device takes over the heart's job of pumping blood. A tube implanted inside the heart channels blood to the pump, which sits outside the body. It then sends blood directly to arteries supplying the rest of the body.

Today Leanny is an active and playful child. She just celebrated her fourth birthday. The four months she spent on the Berlin Heart bought her the time to receive a transplant -- a new heart.

Dr. Charles Fraser of Texas Children's Hospital is the lead researcher for the device, and operated on Leanny.

"It's an amazing feeling," Fraser said. "Leanny would not be with us prior to this device being available. She would have languished, and the likelihood that she would have been transplanted was extremely low."

Leanny was one of 48 children who received the device between 2007 and 2010. Ninety percent survived to get a heart transplant. In contrast, a recent study found that only 62 percent of children receiving conventional medical support lived along enough to get a new heart.

The results led to FDA approval in December, and even surprised the researchers.

"We all believed that the patients were going to do well, but I certainly didn't believe more than 90 percent were going to do well," Fraser said.

There simply are not enough tiny hearts available for the number of children that need transplants. Right now there are about 200 kids age 10 and under awaiting a new heart. The average waiting time for them is two to three months. For them, the Berlin Heart can be a lifesaving bridge to transplantation.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook