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LVAD helps LI heart patient enjoy life

Arthur Plowden, left, of Amityville, and Kathleen Newton,

Arthur Plowden, left, of Amityville, and Kathleen Newton, a nurse practitioner at Stony Brook Medicine, share a moment at Stony Brook University. (Oct. 11, 2012) Credit: Chris Ware

Most people who've gotten to know Arthur Plowden say he has a lot of heart, and they aren't talking about the one he received in a transplant this summer.

When folks who know the Amityville man talk about his heart, they're mostly referring to his enthusiasm for life and his love of basketball.

"Look at him, he's having the time of his life," said nurse practitioner Kathleen Lopez-Newton of the Stony Brook University Heart Institute, watching her former patient knock down three-pointers on the university's court last week.

Proud of Plowden's expertise with a basketball, Lopez-Newton was even prouder that he was there at all -- trotting around the court in a shootaround with elite athletes still in their teens and making baskets as if he had been playing regularly for years.

"I just got this heart July 3 and now I am out here on the court playing basketball with college students," said Plowden, 44, who had been invited to work out with the men's basketball team.

Two years ago, Plowden was barely hanging onto life.

He had end-stage heart failure, a disease characterized by an enlarged organ that no longer pumps efficiently.

Heart transplantation is an option for heart failure patients, but the demand for hearts is high, and too few become available. Most heart transplant candidates die waiting.

But Plowden arrived at Stony Brook just as doctors were beginning a new program with lifesaving technology for people with few options. It is a type of artificial heart known as a left ventricular assist device -- an LVAD.

The device had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January 2010 as a permanent implant. Plowden arrived in April of that year -- sick and within a whisper of death. A few days after his hospital admission, he became the first patient on Long Island to have an LVAD attached to the left chamber of his heart.

With the LVAD, Plowden's heart no longer beat rhythmically because it was not contracting. Instead, the device forced a continuous flow of blood through the organ, which was being given a rest as a result of the machine.

"I am just happy to be here," said Plowden in a phrase that spoke both of his joy with being alive -- and his gratitude with being able to shoot baskets for the first time in more than 30 years.

Plowden said his coaches in North Bellmore where he grew up considered him a basketball prodigy. He still has awards from his days at Sawmill Road, an elementary school. But bad cardiac luck began to dog him early. Heart problems as a teen kept him on the sidelines. By 2008, at age 40, he was diagnosed with heart failure.

When he was wheeled into Stony Brook's cardiac unit two years ago, doctors knew they could help.

"He was gravely ill," said cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Allison McLarty, recalling Plowden when she first saw him. "But he was exactly the kind of patient for whom this device was created."

Heart failure in a person Plowden's age can be caused by an infection that attacks the heart and irrevocably damages it, McLarty said, noting the disease in such cases is not caused by blockages.

McLarty said the LVAD can be used as a "bridge to transplant," a way to keep a person going until a heart for transplant is found, or it can be used as a permanent device. She said the LVAD offers an option for elderly patients, often considered too old for transplants.

Plowden stayed on his device until July 3, when a matching heart was found. The transplant was performed at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx because Stony Brook does not have a heart transplant program.

"Mr. Plowden is a very energetic person and he has put all that energy into regaining his strength," McLarty said. "It was inspiring to watch him in action on the court."

Dr. Hal Skopicki, director of the heart failure program at Stony Brook, said 17 patients have undergone LVAD implantations at Stony Brook and there are plans to implant even more of the devices.

"Our 30-day survival is 100 percent," Skopicki said of patients who've undergone the procedure.

Some patients do not survive the implant long-term, Skopicki added, but he foresees implant devices and developments in stem cell technology ultimately alleviating the need for heart transplants.

Lopez-Newton noted that medical literature reports the longest-running patient on an LVAD as nine years. And it's possible, she said, for people to stay on the device even longer.

Plowden, a landscaper by trade, is enthused about possible opportunities of getting on a basketball court more often.

His invitation to the shootaround came from Stony Brook's head coach for men's basketball, Steve Pikiell, who also has invited him to sit on the bench next month at the Seawolves' opening game.

"All of this is a wonderful experience," Plowden said. "I can't even begin to say how grateful I am for everything."