A year later, advocates of AbioCor artificial heart are upbeat about its future

Tuesday, July 2nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ When Robert Tools was wheeled into the operating room a year ago, a new experiment dawned in the fight to conquer heart disease.

His surgeons didn't know what would happen when they cut out Tools' failing heart and put in a manmade replica. The one certainty was their patient had only days to live without the surgery that made him the first recipient of the totally self-contained AbioCor artificial heart.

Tools lived five months at Jewish Hospital with the replacement pump whirring inside his chest. He regained enough strength to go fishing and dine out. His doctors were making plans to send him home to Franklin, Ky., for Christmas when a stroke started his final descent toward death in late November.

His legacy, though, lives on as a pioneer of a procedure first performed last July 2 that advocates hope will someday become a widely available option to overcome chronic heart disease.

``Because of his love for life and family, he was willing to take a risk that benefited not only him, but mankind in general,'' said Dr. Robert Dowling, one of two surgeons who implanted the AbioCor into Tools. ``He advanced medical science. He did it with class, and he was a true ambassador.''

Since Tools' surgery, six others have received the softball-sized pump, powered by batteries and made of titanium and plastic. Unlike earlier artificial hearts, the AbioCor has no wires or tubes protruding from the chest.

Two patients are still living _ Tom Christerson and James Quinn.

Quinn, who received an AbioCor last November, remains hospitalized.

Christerson, the second Abiocor recipient in a Sept. 13 surgery at Jewish Hospital, is back home in Central City, Ky., becoming the biggest success story.

In the past year, Abiomed Inc. has learned that its AbioCor artificial heart can replace the human heart, and is capable of letting patients lead ``a very acceptable quality of life,'' said company spokesman Ed Berger.

``Tom Christerson is a shining example of what the present system is capable of,'' Berger said. ``The fact that we have a patient who is in his 70s at home, living as well as he is, feeling as good as he is, is just very encouraging.''

Since returning home to a hero's welcome in April, Christerson has settled into a low-key routine that includes physical therapy. He has lived to see the arrival of a new generation with the birth of his first great-grandchild.

``I'd been dead a long time ago'' without the surgery, Christerson said. ``I figure this saved my life.''

Dr. Laman Gray Jr., Dowling's partner in performing three AbioCor implants at Jewish Hospital, said the clinical trials have gone better than he expected.

``We have made fabulous progress in the last year, but we still have a long way to go,'' Gray said. ``This is still a highly experimental procedure we are doing, and we are continuing to learn everyday.''

Tools' widow, Carol, said she harbors no regrets about his surgery. Her husband was ``able to experience some of the joy that had been missing from his life for some time,'' she said in a statement.

Besides the operations performed at Jewish Hospital, two were done at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston and one each at Hahneman University Hospital in Philadelphia and the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The risk of stroke is one obstacle that surgeons and Abiomed engineers are striving to overcome. Three of the seven patients suffered strokes.

Abiomed slowed the clinical trial to analyze what was learned and to grapple with the threat of strokes. The device was modified slightly, especially for patients unable to take anti-clotting medicine.

The pace of surgeries will pick up soon. Abiomed hopes to have the device implanted in eight more patients in the next six months. That will complete the clinical trial. Abiomed will evaluate the results and decide whether to seek federal approval for commercial distribution.

Dr. David Faxon, chief of cardiology at the University of Chicago, said the AbioCor remains a work in progress.

``I think people are waiting to see how things turn out,'' said Faxon, a past president of the American Heart Association. ``A lot of cardiologists remain hesitant about it.''