Your Money Or Your Life: Revolutionary Heart

AbioCor Heart Gives Texas Man New Life

As chief cardiac surgeon at Houston's Saint Luke's Hospital, home of the Texas Heart Institute, Dr. Bud Frazier has held more dying hearts in his hands than he cares to count.

He's performed more than 800 transplants, but he had never done a surgery like the one he did on Bobby Harrison in September 2001. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.

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Harrison, of Palacios, Texas, is an experienced oil-well firefighter whose work once took him around the world. Ten years ago, a failing heart made fighting fires out of the question. Last fall, at 68, he was struggling to even walk. Too sick to qualify for a heart transplant, he had less than a month to live.

"Dying with heart failure causes a lot of suffering," Frazier says, "because you are always out of breath. He couldn't breath and he wanted some help from that problem."

In a six-hour operation, Dr. Frazier replaced Bobby's diseased heart with an AbioCor artificial heart, a two-pound sophisticated mechanical pump about the size of a large grapefruit. It has a small computer that regulates the beats and runs on rechargeable batteries. No wires protrude from the body.

Seven patients so far have received the Abiocor heart in clinical trials. The heart, for now, is reserved for the most critically ill. The first patient, Bob Tools, who made big news when he received the first heart, died after four months. Weeks later, two more patients died.

"We're not creating Olympic athletes with this," Frazier is quick to note. "The patients we're treating, they're not concerned about playing six sets of tennis. They're concerned about breathing."

But Frazier is optimistic, foreseeing the day when an artificial heart will be as common as pacemaker. "I think we have the potential to replace more effectively the function of the heart with this technology than a heart transplant," he says.

Harrison's heart was designed at the labs of AbioMed in Danvers, Mass, a sort of "mission control" where bionic hearts are tested for the one thing that matters the most - reliability. So far, more than two dozen hearts have been beating away non-stop, 144,000 beats a day, for up to 20 months.

"The human life span is today determined largely by the heart," says David Lederman , CEO of the company that developed the heart. With this heart, he says,"productive life would be extended."

In December, 2001, Harrison's bionic heart was three months old and Harrison was walking.

"Before I got this heart, there was a lot of things I couldn't do," he says. "I couldn't get out and walk and now I can walk anywhere I want to go."

Harrison's wife, Doris, who has made the hospital her home since her husband's surgery, said Harrison is a fighter.

"He had been ill for so long," she said, "it was a choice of fighting and trying to live and wanting to do things again or giving up and he is definitely a fighter."

Harrison's "miracle" is "something beyond the imagination of just a plain old surgeon," says 81-year-old Dr. Denton Cooley. "It's just a different world."

The doctor who performed the first successful human heart transplant in the U.S in 1968 and put in the first artificial heart a year later, Dr. Cooley says the new heart has unlimited possibility.

Recalling that the first artificial heart was tethered to a console the size of a refrigerator, Cooley now sees a permanent artificial heart in the not-too-distant future.

July 2002 Update:

Sadly, days after this story was first broadcast in February, Bobby Harrison passed away. The cause was complications from a stroke. Doctors are studying his artificial heart.

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