Hope, blood surge together

Tiny Jarvik 2000 heart pump undergoes tests at UNC Hospitals

Staff WriterDecember 13, 2005 

For the first time in a long while, Marilyn Lassiter believes her husband, Charley, is going to live.

The last time she brought Charley to the hospital -- it was the seventh or eighth time this year -- he was so weak that he couldn't walk from the car to the entrance, and so short of breath he could barely talk.

His heart was failing.

On Monday, he smiled and laughed and walked the hospital's long corridors on his own. On Nov. 21, he joined a handful of patients who have received a new heart pump as part of a clinical trial. In his left ventricle sits the tiny Jarvik 2000 FlowMaker, its motor spinning almost silently, helping his heart pump blood.

"I feel like I'm doing great now," said Charley Lassiter, who returned home Monday. "Tomorrow, I'm going to get up and see how far I can walk."

UNC Hospitals is one of 11 medical centers nationwide involved in the trial, to test how well the $75,000 device works in patients awaiting transplants. Medicare and many insurance companies will pay for the device for these patients.

Thirteen patients have received the device through the clinical trial, three of them at UNC Hospitals, said Janine Lynch, manager of clinical affairs for Jarvik Heart Inc. of New York City. The company hopes to test 160 patients in the trial and has been given four years by the federal Food and Drug Administration to complete it.

More than 100 patients total have received the device, some in Europe, others in a previous U.S. trial. The pump is designed to last at least a decade -- in Europe, it is approved for lifetime use -- for those who can't or choose not to undergo a transplant.

Dr. Craig Selzman, who performed the three surgeries at UNC, said the device, about the size of a C battery, is much smaller than other heart pumps, meaning that surgery is much less intrusive and recovery time is shorter.

The pump is attached to a cord that exits the patient's body near the waist and connects to an external battery. The device also connects to a controller, which can be worn at the waist or carried separately, that the patient can use to control the rate of blood flow for varied activities, such as sleeping or exercising.

According to the American Heart Association, nearly 5 million Americans suffer from heart failure, a weakening of the heart's ability to pump blood, and about 550,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. In severe cases, hearts pump blood at only 10 to 15 percent of normal capacity. Some patients can control the condition with medication, but that can become less effective over time.

Lassiter, 50, of Clarkton had a heart attack in 1999 that left him unable to continue his job as a foreman of a logging crew. He could still do most of the activities he enjoyed; he just had to take his time. But things turned worse early this year when he got pneumonia.

Afterward, it was a good day if he could make it from his house to the mailbox, Marilyn Lassiter said. He began retaining fluids, another complication of the disease, and gained about 30 pounds.

For Ed Armogida, 61, the mental anguish was even worse than the physical. He had his first heart attack in 1995 and recovered, but had another one about four years later. But, like Lassiter, he wasn't hit with the worst until this year.

Armogida, who lives alone in Raleigh, said he became afraid to go places on his own. He'd sometimes drive to the shopping center, then turn around, worried that he wouldn't have the strength to get out of his car, or get back to it. "You just keep thinking, 'Is something going to go wrong? Is something going to happen today?' " he said.

Armogida, a retired history teacher, had the device installed Nov. 7. He said he's feeling "a great deal better" and may be released from the hospital this week.

The men are eager for life to return to normal. Armogida looks forward to playing with his 14-month-old grandson. Lassiter waits for the strength to take his boat out and go fishing again.

And both will wait hopefully for the day when a call comes, and a new heart arrives.

Staff writer Lisa Hoppenjans can be reached at 932-2014 or lisa.hoppenjans@newsobserver.com.

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