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Affairs of the Heart
Mending a Broken HeartRobot Heart SurgeryThe Heart FactoryHow's Your Heart?
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Photo of Michael Dorsey
Michael Dorsey relied on an LVAD for eight months until his successful transplant.  

As hopes for a total artificial heart (TAH) faded, surgeons worked to perfect heart transplantation. Today, 86 percent of patients who receive a donor heart survive for at least one year after the procedure. More than 70 percent of patients live at least four years. But the shortage of donor organs continues to force doctors to seek other ways of mending broken hearts.

The restful break that LVADs give an ailing heart might be enough to essentially "cure" heart disease in some people.

For nearly two decades, mechanical devices designed to assist, not replace, weakened hearts have helped people stay healthy while they wait for an organ donation. Called LVADs, or left ventricle assist devices, the pumps take the strain off the left ventricle, the hardest working chamber of the heart, whose job it is to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout the entire body. Though power cords and vents still jut out from the patient's stomach, the portable battery power source allows the person some degree of freedom and mobility.

Furthermore, there is some evidence that the restful break L-VADs give an ailing heart might be enough to essentially "cure" heart disease in some people. In August 2000, California-based Thoratec Laboratories reported that some thirty to forty patients appear to have recovered from their heart disease while using the company's L-VAD. The patients, at hospitals around the world, were implanted with the device while awaiting a heart transplant. But within 10 to 190 days, doctors found that many of the patient's heart conditions had dramatically improved, to the point that they no longer required a transplant or continued use of the L-VADs.

Photo of  L-VAD
  Surgeons prepare to attach an L-VAD to a patient's weakened left ventricle.

"It was originally thought [heart disease] was completely irreversible," says David Farrar, head of Research and Development at Thoratec. "Now people are starting to work on how to find out who's going to recover and who's not."

Thoratec estimates as many as five million Americans could benefit from their device; no longer as a bridge to transplant, but as a bridge to recovery. FDA approval to use the device for "therapeutic recovery" is pending.
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