Boy gets artificial heart; may get transplant if he doesn't recover from virus

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; C10

Doctors can do a lot to repair the human heart when something goes wrong. But when the heart gets so sick it can't be fixed by typical medicines or surgery, doctors sometimes turn to something out of science fiction: an artificial heart. Such devices are not used very often, but that's what saved the life of Savoy Bradford, a 16-year-old from Prince George's County.

Savoy got a virus last summer that made his heart so swollen and weak it could barely pump anymore. This kind of sudden heart failure is very unusual, but doctors had a plan to save his life: They put something called a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD for short, in his chest, next to his heart. Here's how it works:

Blood flows from your body into the right side of your heart, which pumps that blood to the lungs to soak up oxygen. That blood then flows back into the left side of your heart, where a chamber called the left ventricle squeezes really hard. That pushes your blood through a huge artery, called the aorta, to the rest of your body. This constant squeezing action is what you feel as your heartbeat.

An LVAD is about the size of a lemon, with tubes on each end. In Savoy's body, one end is attached to the bottom of the heart and the other to his aorta. The powerful motor inside the LVAD forces oxygenated blood from Savoy's heart, through his aorta and to the rest of his body.

Savoy got his LVAD in August and has spent months recovering. But last week he went back to school at Forestville Military Academy, where he is in 10th grade. After being so sick, he couldn't wait. "School means more to me now," he said.

Savoy can do many things he did before, but he has some limitations. The biggest one is that there is a cord running from his artificial heart, through a tiny opening in his side that's taped thoroughly with bandages, to a battery pack he takes with him everywhere. The batteries and their control panel weigh four pounds, as does the extra set of both that he must always have with him. It's like lugging a stack of books around all day, which Savoy doesn't enjoy.

You might be surprised to know that Savoy no longer has a pulse, even though he's very much alive. Your pulse comes from your heart pumping your blood, and Savoy's heart isn't doing that.

Doctors hope that Savoy's heart will heal itself and start beating well enough that they can take out the LVAD and let Savoy's own heart do its job. But if that doesn't happen, Savoy might need a heart transplant, in which another heart would replace his.

For now, though, Savoy is just happy to be alive, back with his friends and in school.

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