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Girl Lives Without Heart, Survives

November 20, 2008

An American teenager lived for 118 days without a heart; doctors say she was kept alive by a custom-built artificial blood-pumping device until she was able to have a heart transplant.

D’Zhana Simmons says she felt like a “fake person” for the four months when she had no heart beating in her chest. “But I know that I really was here,” the 14-year-old said, “and I did live without a heart.”

The shy teen seemed in awe of what she’s endured as she was released Wednesday from a Miami hospital.

“You never knew when it would malfunction,” she said.

She had a heart transplant in July at Miami’s Holtz Children’s Hospital, but doctors say the new heart failed to function properly and was quickly removed.

Two heart pumps made by Thoratec Corp of Pleasanton, California, were implanted to keep her blood flowing while she fought a host of ailments and recovered her strength.

Doctors implanted another heart on October 29.

“She essentially lived for 118 days without a heart, with her circulation supported only by the two blood pumps,” said Dr. Marco Ricci, the hospital’s director of pediatric cardiac surgery. During that time, Simmons was mobile but remained hospitalized.

Dr. Peter Wearden, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh who works with the kind of pumps used in this case, said what the Miami medical team managed to do “is a big deal.”

“For (more than) 100 days, there was no heart in this girl’s body? That is pretty amazing,” Wearden said.

The pumps, ventricular assist devices, are typically used with a heart still in place to help the chambers circulate blood. With D’Zhana’s heart removed, doctors at Holtz Children’s Hospital crafted substitute heart chambers using a fabric and connected these to the two pumps.

“This, we believe, is the first pediatric patient who has received such a device in this configuration without the heart, and possibly one of the youngest that has … been bridged to transplantation without her native heart,” Ricci said.

He said this case demonstrates that doctors now have one more option.

“In the past, this situation could have been lethal,” Ricci said.

Ricci said D’Zhana prognosis was good. But doctors said there is a 50 percent chance that a heart transplant patient will need a new heart 12 or 13 years after the first surgery.

“I truly believe it’s a miracle,” said her mother, Twolla Anderson.

D’Zhana said now she’s grateful for small things: She’ll see her five siblings soon, and she can spend time outdoors.

“I’m glad I can walk without the machine,” she said, her turquoise princess top covering most of the scars on her chest. After thanking the surgeons for helping her, D’Zhana began weeping.

Doctors say she’ll be able to do most things that teens do, like attending school and going out with friends.

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