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First LI patient gets new 'heart' at Stony Brook

At Stony Brook University Medical Center, Dr. Allison

At Stony Brook University Medical Center, Dr. Allison McLarty poses with the Heart Mate, a device that takes over the function of the heart's left side. (April 9, 2010) Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Arthur Plowden has become a pioneering patient on Long Island for a new kind of heart pump that his doctors say offers lifesaving technology for people running low on options.

Doctors at Stony Brook University Medical Center a week ago attached to Plowden's heart a left ventricular assist device - an LVAD - that assumes the pumping role of his heart's left chamber. It's the first time a Long Island hospital has implanted the device, which was federally approved as a permanent implant in January.

An LVAD consists of the surgically implanted pump attached to an external power pack worn on a shoulder strap or belt. Earlier LVADs, designed for temporary use, had power sources the size of a desk.

With the LVAD, Plowden's heart no longer beats in a familiar lub-dub, lub-dub because it's not contracting rhythmically. Instead, the device forces a continuous flow of blood through the organ. Missing also is a rhythmic pulse. That, too, is based on the heart's beat.

Without the device, Plowden, 42, of Amityville, could have lost his struggle against congestive heart failure, his doctors say.

Dr. Hal Skopicki, director of the heart failure program at Stony Brook, said the device gives Plowden's weakened heart a rest. "There is more oxygen-rich blood being pumped to the body, to his brain and to his muscles, and that all translates into improved function."

Said Plowden: "I feel great. I've been walking in the hall. I was shocked I felt so strong."

Manufactured by Thoratec Corp. in California, the LVAD carries the brand name HeartMate 2. Previous generations of the device were used only temporarily, for instance, while patients awaited a heart transplant. The new version can remain in the body indefinitely.

Rare in people Plowden's age, heart failure is a major health concern in the United States, especially among people 65 and older. Doctors say the device offers an option for elderly patients, often considered too old for transplants.

Heart failure is typified by an enlarged organ that can't pump efficiently. As a result, blood collects in the tissues. Once awash in the lungs, people can drown in their own fluids. Heart transplants help a small fraction of patients, but most candidates die waiting.

Diagnosed with heart failure in 2008, Plowden said he had lifelong cardiac problems and couldn't play sports as a teen.

"This device is piggybacked onto his heart," said Dr. Allison McLarty, the surgeon who performed Plowden's operation.

A cable linked to the device emerges from his side, attaching to the external power source. "He will go home to a power-base unit that's about the size of a [desktop] computer and is on wheels," McLarty added, "so he can plug himself into that while he sleeps, or while he's sitting in a chair reading or watching TV."

The portable power pack weighs about 5 pounds and provides up to six hours of energy.

Dr. Harold Fernandez, director the heart failure program at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill, said his institution plans to begin the surgery later this year. "This is exciting technology," Fernandez said.

Plowden, a landscaper, hopes new opportunities lie ahead.

"I would love to go to work again, and be just like everyone else," he said. "I love landscaping. I'm infatuated with landscaping and building ponds. I'm hoping that's the next step."

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