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VAD: New Heart Device Holds Hope

Advances in treating heart disease have made big news with the vice president's condition. But not every patient is treated so successfully: Nearly 600 Americans die every year waiting for a new heart because they are in scarce supply. As many as 100,000 Americans need one.

Now, there's an experimental device being tested to buy patients' time. It's a tiny pump, called the DeBakey ventricular device (VAD).

This device saved one young man in New Jersey. Two years ago, Kendall Johnson, then 18, was overcome by chest pains and shortness of breath. Doctors diagnosed him with a serious congenital heart ailment called dilated cardiomyopathy. They prescribed medications and even implanted an internal defibrillator, just like the vice president's.

But in early may, Kendell's heart swelled to twice its normal size, pumping so slowly that he passed out.

"He was basically near death," says Daniel Goldstein, the surgical director of heart transplantation at Newark Beth Israel Hospital. He knew Kendell needed a new heart, but understood that it could take months to get one.

The VAD bought precious time for Kendell.

"The operation went very smoothly," Goldstein tells CBS2's Paul Moniz. "We had his breathing tube removed the following morning. He was in bed within 22 to 28 hours."

The noiseless device, now in clinical trials, is the brainchild of famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey and NASA engineers.

The VAD's continuous-flow pump uses the same technology that pushes fuel through rockets and is potentially a vast improvement over the large device currently in use.

"The audience can tell from miles away that this is a heavy device," Goldstein says. "[It] weighs 3 to 3 1/2 pounds. [The VAD] weighs just a few ounces."

Size is important because the first-generation device does not fit in many patients, including most women, children, and those who have a thin frame, like Kendell. That increases the likelihood that they will die.

When Goldstein tried to install the larger device in Kendall and it did not fit, he scrambled to get the experimental one.

"We got an emergency application in," he says. "The device was shipped in 48 hours."

Nurses and the entire surgical team had to be trained in 48 hours, too. Kendell became the 11th person in the United States to have the VAD. Sixteen days later, he received a new heart. He even attended his senior prom.

Kendell still takes more than 30 pills a day to prevent infection and organ rejection, but he is determined to recover. He plans to attend college in the future and wants to become an accountant.

As for his medical future, his doctor says he may need another heart transplant down the line, but hopefully by that time, new devices, including an artificial heart, will be more widely available.

The longest anyone has lived with the VAD device is 9 months.
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