; Your Health
pump is the same model that former Vice President Dick Cheney
showed off on his recent book tour.
To date, more than 8,000 heart patients have received the HeartMate
II, according to Thoratec, the Cal-ifornia-based company that makes
the device. The state-of-the-art
pump costs $80,000. Surgical and
medical costs associated with implanting it and monitoring patients
drive the price tag higher. But both
Medicare and private insurers cover
the device for eligible patients.
The device offers fresh hope for
people with heart failure, which
occurs when the heart is no lon-
ger strong enough to pump blood
normally. More than 5 million
Americans suffer from heart failure.
Sometimes called congestive heart
failure, it’s a progressive disease
that robs the body’s organs of the
oxygenated blood they need. “It got so I couldn’t
walk more than a few steps without being short
of breath,” says Sowden. “I couldn’t walk up-
stairs. I could hardly lift my arms.”
The pump that’s keeping Sowden alive is the
latest in a long line of devices designed to take
over for faltering hearts. The task hasn’t been
easy. “Early pumps were too big to fit in small-
er patients, including many women, and they
weren’t very durable, wearing out after only
about two years,” says Andrew Boyle, M.D., medi-
cal director of the heart failure, heart transplant
and mechanical circulatory support programs at
Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee.
“The HeartMate II really changed everything,”
says Robert Adamson, M.D., medical director of
the Cardiac Transplant Program at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego. Unlike previous
pumps, this device, approved by the Food and
Drug Administration for long-term use in 2010,
doesn’t pump like the heart, squeezing blood out
of a chamber. Instead, it spins like a tiny jet engine,
pushing a steady flow of blood through the body.
The pump is much smaller—roughly the size of a
flashlight battery—so it can be implanted even in
very small patients. And it has only one moving
part, so it’s also far more durable, lasting for 10
years or more in laboratory tests.
Studies show that the risk of infection and other
complications has dropped dramatically with the
new pump. In one analysis, two out of three pa-
pictured here in
front of Yankee
innings” in life.
tients were alive two years after implantation—an impressive number given
that recipients are almost always in the
end stages of heart failure. The stronger
the patients are, the better their odds.
“Most of the deaths occurred within
the first few months among patients who were too
sick to get through the surgery and recovery,” says
Boyle. “After those first few months, the curve flattens out, meaning if patients are strong enough to
make it through the surgery and recovery, they’re
alive and doing very well.”
Boyle’s first patient to receive the device was
a 79-year-old man with congestive heart failure
who received it as part of a clinical trial in 2005.
“A lot of people at the time might have
said he was too old,” says Boyle. “Six
and a half years later, at 86, he’s still going strong.” Indeed, a recent study that
compared results for patients under
70 and those over 70 found almost no
difference in survival or quality of life.
Because the device restores normal
blood flow to organs throughout the
body, in many patients kidney and liver
function improves. In some cases, the
heart may even repair itself, especially
in younger patients whose heart failure
was caused by a virus that infected heart
muscles, a condition called viral car-diomyopathy. Once the heart is strong
enough, the pump can be removed.
When damage to the heart is irreversible, as in
most cases of congestive heart failure, the pump
can buy time until a donor organ is available for
a heart transplant. Before he suffered a heart attack at age 47, Michael-Joshua Morris, of New
York City, was exceptionally active. After his
heart attack, he couldn’t walk more than 10 steps
without gasping for breath and leaning on his
wife, Anne Marie. Two years ago he had the device implanted. “What the heart attack took away
from me, the LVAD gave back to me,” says Morris, who still hopes to undergo a heart transplant.
But many older heart failure patients aren’t
eligible for transplants because of complicating
medical conditions. A heart pump may be the only
The left ventricle assist
device is powered by
external batteries and
an external controller,
worn on the belt. A flex-
ible line from the con-
troller enters the body
above the waist and
to the pump.
How it works
The Bionic Heart
into the body
The heart pump
blood from the
to the aorta.