The Man Behind The Heart

Doses of the injectable diabetes drug Byetta move down a production line at Eli Lilly and Co. In Indianapolis, Wednesday, June 21, 2006. Experts predictions that the diabetic population could double to 350 million in the next 20 years have drug companies like Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly racing to capture that ballooning market.
AP Photo/Tom Strattman
Speaking hoarsely and haltingly, the man with the first self-contained artificial heart introduced himself to the world Tuesday, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.

Robert Tools, a 59-year-old former telephone company employee, was introduced at Jewish Hospital through a video link from his doctor's office. It was his idea to hold the press conference.

It was his first public appearance since the titanium-and-plastic pump the size of a softball was put inside his chest July 2. Without the operation, he had been given just a month to live.

"I'm still getting used to it," he said. "And 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, wearing a blue shirt, red tie and sneakers, walked into the room and sat upright in a chair as he fielded questions, peering through his glasses at the video camera. He kept his right hand over his throat to cover a hole left from a tracheotomy tube; his doctor said that helped Tools project his voice.

A diabetic with a history of heart problems, he chose to undergo the experimental operation after he had been deemed too ill to receive a transplant.

"I had a choice to stay home and die or come here and take a chance," he said. "I decided to come here and take a chance."

His doctors say he continues to exceed expectations. They had said they hoped the artificial heart would extend the lives of patients like Tools by a month; he has gone seven weeks since the operation.

Artificial Heart Milestones
Click here for a chronology of the development of devices to replace the human heart, from 1953 to today.
Dr. Laman Gray Jr. said if Tools gains strength, a heart transplant could become an option in four to six months. Tools' liver and kidney, which were failing at the time of the surgery, are now functioning normally.

"We've taken someone who has been the sickest you can get and literally gotten him now back into a very healthy situation," Gray said.

All along doctors maintained quality of life is a key element of success. It is not enough to keep Tools alive, they say, they want him to be able to go fishing again someday.

"He's the first," said Dr. Robert Dowlingwho implanted the device with Gray. "So if he says, 'am I going to get good quality of life on this?' we say, 'Bob we just don't know.' But that's our focus, that's our goal."

Jewish Hospital and Abiomed Inc., maker of the artificial heart, maintained a "quiet period" since the surgery to protect Tools' privacy. The patient's name has been so closely guarded that even people who live on the same street in Franklin and the family's pastor said they did not know Tools had undergone the experimental procedure.

A friend and neighbor, Melony Scott, 34, said Tools and his wife, Carol, moved into the neighborhood where she lives about the same time she did in 1996.

"He'd walk over four or five times a day," she said in an interview at her home last week. Scott said she bought a couple of lawn chairs, and Tools would keep her company while she tended her outdoor plants.

Scott said the last time Tools visited her, the walk across the residential street was excruciatingly slow.

She described him as an optimistic man who refused to accept the grim prognosis when doctors told him there was no hope.

"If anybody can ever do this, they picked the right person," she said. "He'll just tell you, 'Girl, I'm going to whip this.'"

Click here to learn more about how the AbioCor works.

A former neighbor, Joanne Hartmeister, who lives near Tools' former home in Morrison, Colo., said Tools is a talented musician and cook and liked to go fishing.

Tools had a computer-related job with what used to be the telephone company in Colo., but eventually left for health reasons, Hartmeister said. Scott said Tools had earlier been a special education teacher in Chicago.

Scott said Tools moved from Colorado to be close to doctors in Nashville while he awaited a heart transplant. According to Hartmeister, Tools thought the lower altitude would help.

But eventually he learned that the option of a heart transplant was not open to him because of other health problems.

He despaired at first, but then "I think he looked at it like he had to prepare himself for the next option, which was Louisville," Scott said. "I don't think dying has ever been an option with Bob."

The AbioCor artificial heart is self-contained, with an internal battery. Earlier mechanical hearts had wires and tubes that stuck out of the chest and connected to a power source.

Doctors have said the patient jokes with his doctors and nurses, takes strolls in the hospital, listens to jazz CDs and watches videotapes.

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