FIRST recipient of self-contained artificial heart felt life slipping away before surgery

Wednesday, August 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Projecting a strong will despite his whispering voice, Robert Tools said he felt his life ebbing away before he took a chance that made him the first human with a self-contained artificial heart.

Waking up from the operation, Tools was happy to ``know that I was alive and to know that I had gotten that far,'' he recalled Tuesday at a news conference that let the world match a face to the famous patient.

Seven weeks after the surgery, Tools said he's still getting used to the softball-sized experimental pump, but its whirring sound reminds him that his life has been extended. Without the July 2 operation at Jewish Hospital, he had been expected to live just a month.

``I realize that death is inevitable, but I also realize if there's an opportunity to extend it, you take it,'' Tools said.

The 59-year-old former telephone company employee was introduced at Jewish Hospital through a video link from his doctor's office.

Wearing a blue shirt, red tie and sneakers, Tools walked into the room, sat in a chair and fielded questions. Tools kept his right hand over his throat to cover a hole left from a tracheotomy tube. His doctor said that helped Tools project his voice.

A diabetic with a history of heart problems, Tools chose to have the AbioCor artificial heart implanted into his chest after he had been deemed too ill to receive a transplant. Before the operation Tools was on his ``last few days of life,'' he said.

``I had a choice to stay home and die or come here and take a chance,'' he said.

Jewish Hospital and Abiomed Inc. of Danvers, Mass., maker of the artificial heart, had kept Tools' identity a secret until this week. Even Tools' neighbors and the family pastor in Franklin, 140 miles south of Louisville, said they didn't know he had received the heart.

Tools moved to Franklin from Colorado five years ago hoping to receive a heart transplant, because the waiting list in nearby Nashville, Tenn., was shorter than it was in Denver.

Tools grew progressively weaker after the move. Before the surgery, he could take only a few steps at a time and couldn't raise his head to talk to his doctors.

Dr. Laman Gray Jr. said a heart transplant could become an option in four to six months. Tools' liver and kidney, which were failing at the time of the surgery, are now functioning normally.

``We've taken someone who has been the sickest you can get and literally gotten him now back into a very healthy situation,'' Gray said.

Dr. Robert Dowling, who implanted the device with Gray, said their patient still needs to gain about 30 pounds and go through physical therapy. Should everything go well, Dowling said, Tools should be able to take long walks and go fishing, one of his favorite hobbies.

The first recipient of an artificial heart, Seattle-area dentist Barney Clark, lived 112 days after receiving the bulky Jarvik-7 in 1982. William Schroeder of Jasper, Ind., lived longest with a complete artificial heart _ 620 days before he died in 1986.

Tools' artificial heart is self-contained, with an internal battery. Unlike the earlier mechanical hearts, it has no wires and tubes that stick out of the chest and connect to a power source.