New Device May Heal Damaged Hearts

Salena Gonzales is doing more than teaching her first-grade class how to read: She's also teaching doctors a promising new lesson on healing the human heart, CBS News contributing medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta reports.

Last June, for reasons doctors still aren't sure of, Gonzales' heart began to fail. At the age of 27, raising a toddler on her own, she had congestive heart failure.

"I couldn't walk up stairs, maybe two or three steps, without being completely out of breath," Gonzales says.

"Salena was dying," says Dr. Roberta Bogaev, Gonzales' cardiologist. He says her condition was so bad that "her heart (was) barely moving."

"The pain that I had the most was thinking that I might leave my 16-month-old son behind. That's what really hurt; that's what made me cry," Gonzales says.

The only option for her doctors was to try to keep her alive until a donor heart became available. Previously, heart pumps were too big and heavy for most women, but Gonzales received a new smaller, lighter version.

It's called an LVAD, because the device is attached to the left ventricle of the heart, and it takes over the work of pumping blood. A thin cable comes through the skin and attaches to a controller and two portable batteries that the patients must always carry.

When doctors turn the pump on, it circulates blood continuously and quietly. As a result, Salena has no pulse and no blood pressure.

For patients like Gonzales, it's thought of as a bridge to a transplant — keeping her alive until a donor heart becomes available. But it could be doing something more; by itself, it might be putting her on the road to recovery.

Six months after receiving her LVAD, Gonzales resumed her life as a mom and a teacher, stopping only for an occasional battery change.

But there's more going on: Her heart seems to be healing, and her doctors believe that eventually she may not need a pump at all.

Ten years from now "she'll be outside but without a pump, walking around, teaching school, doing the work she's been doing," says Dr. Bud Frazier at the Texas Heart Institute.

For Gonzales, carrying batteries around all day is a small price to pay to have her life back.

Gonzales is still on the waiting list for a transplant, but doctors hope she might never need one.

We used to the think that once damaged, cardiac cells could not fix themselves, but Gupta reports that the device shows they are capable of repair while the pump does all the work. The heart doesn't beat, therefore there's no pulse and no blood pressure.