Health & Medicine

Donor heart replaces device that kept young Kentucky man alive

Zach Poe, left with his mother, Laurie, and Tony, right, at the College of Health Sciences at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 4, 2012. Zach Poe, the first Total Artificial Heart patient in Kentucky received his new heart from a donor recently. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Zach Poe, left with his mother, Laurie, and Tony, right, at the College of Health Sciences at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., on Sept. 4, 2012. Zach Poe, the first Total Artificial Heart patient in Kentucky received his new heart from a donor recently. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Zack Poe, a 21-year-old from Northern Kentucky who lived for more than five months with a SynCardia artificial heart device, now has a donor heart.

No longer will the device's 131/2-pound power case announce his appearance with a buzz like that of a sedate washing machine. The only clue now to his status as a heart recipient is the red donor awareness pin tacked to his plaid shirt.

Does he miss the machine?

"I'm just as happy checking my pulse," Poe said Tuesday, touching his fingers to a pulse point in his wrist.

For his family, having him live through the loss of his own heart, stay alive and healthy while waiting and finally get a donor heart within the past month is nothing short of a miracle.

For Poe's University of Kentucky doctors, the soft-spoken young man is an example of the kind of care that will allow more patients with advanced heart disease to have a happy ending.

"Zack went into this transplant in really good shape," said Dr. Mark Plunkett, co-director of the Linda and Jack Gill Heart Institute, who noted that while waiting for his donor heart Poe was able to go home and spend time with family and friends.

"It wasn't that long ago that patients like Zack would have stayed in the hospital waiting for their transplants," Plunkett said.

UK has the capacity to do up to six SynCardia procedures a year, the doctors said. It has done two this year, including Poe's.

"He's had a very good outcome," said Dr. Charles Hoopes, director of the UK Transplant Center.

Now that Poe has a human heart again, he is working on building his stamina. While he can't drive for a few more weeks, he is learning to live without the artificial heart.

The only scare came when he was going into a Best Buy electronics store and heard an alarm that reminded him of the one on the power base to his artificial heart system.

In early January, Poe went to an urgent treatment center because he did not have a regular doctor and thought he had an ulcer. Later, his organs began to fail, and he became the first Kentuckian to receive a SynCardia artificial heart.

Why Poe's heart failed is something of a mystery, although Hoopes said it might have been because of a virus.

When Poe's heart began to fail, he had a heart ejection fraction — a measurement that shows the amount of blood the heart can pump into the body with each beat — of less than 10 percent. Healthy people generally have heart-ejection fractions of 55 percent to 75 percent.

SynCardia's parent company in Tucson, Ariz., said there are 34 SynCardia Certified Centers in the United States and 67 worldwide. The 13.5-pound Freedom Driver began to be widely used in 2010, succeeding a 418-pound device that kept the patient confined to a hospital.

Poe's parents, Laurie and Tony Poe of Hebron, have become organ donor awareness activists. They and their daughter, Kelsey, 17, are grateful for the support the family has received from various groups.

"There are a lot of charitable people out there," said Tony Poe. "You don't know about them until something like this happens."

Now Zack Poe, who used to be a long-distance walker and had played soccer, can plan his future.

"I have too many ideas and not enough time," he said Tuesday.

But now, he has a lot more time than before.

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