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In His Own Words: Artificial Heart Patient Steps Forward

The man who received the first artificial heart was once so sick he had less than 30 days to live. Doctors are now talking about a day when he might be able to return home to a decent quality of life. Dr. Emily Senay has the story.

Since the implantation of his new mechanical heart 52 days ago, Robert Tools's identity has remained a secret. Known only as a diabetic man in his late 50s who was at death's door, Mr. Tools has now decided he is feeling well enough to talk about the historic device that is prolonging his life.

The first glimpse of artificial heart recipient Robert Tools revealed a very weak but very happy man.

"I had a choice--I could sit at home and die, or come here and take a chance. I decided to come here and take a chance," Tools says.

The 59-year-old former telephone company employee was introduced at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, through a video link from his doctor's office.

He describes his experience with his new heart: "I'm still getting used to it. The biggest thing is getting used to not having a heartbeat--except here I have a whirring sound, and that makes me realize that I'm alive because I can hear it without a stethoscope," Tools says.

Doctors at Jewish Hospital implanted the mechanical heart known as the AbioCor in a historic surgery on July 2. It contains a small motor that pumps blood through two chamber and is implanted in the chest along with a rechargeable battery that allows it to work on its own for 30 minutes. It's all completely contained within the body. An external power source worn as a belt transmits electricity through the skin to recharge the battery.

So far, Mr. Tools has overcome some breathing trouble and infection. His doctors are upbeat about his steadily improving condition.

"I can't hope for his kidney function to be better or his liver function to be better. The device has worked flawlessly. I can't hope for the device to work any better than it has. It's been perfect," says Dr. Robert Dowling of the Jewish Hospital.

A video of Mr. Tools's 59th birthday party last month was also released--another testament to a man who is taking full advantage of his new lease on life.

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

Tools' doctors are still concerned because he is malnourished and does not have enough muscle mass. He is still too weak to leave the hospital anytime soon.

The FDA has approved four more artificial heart implants before the end of the year. Dr. O.H. Frazier, director of Cardiac Surgical Research at the Texas Heart Institute, is one of the surgeons who will perform the procedure when a candidate is available.

Frazier spoke with Tools's doctors in Louisville just a couple of days ago. Frazier is guarded about Tools's prospects and will not speculate about the future. Tools and his doctors, he says, are taking it day by day.

He cautions that ools makes up only one case. The goal, he says, is to have a good number of patients with artificial hearts leaving the hospital and living normal lives. But he worries that the media is offering false hope to heart patients. "Let's talk this time next year," he says. "Then we'll know a lot more."
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