Health & Medicine

UK implants new type of artificial heart in 20-year-old

Zack Poe sat between University of Kentucky surgeons Dr. Charles Hoopes, left, and Dr. Mark  Plunkett at a news conference at UK's Charles T. Wethington Building Monday. Plunkett held the internal workings of a SynCardia Total Artificial Heart such as the one implanted in Poe on Feb. 10.
Zack Poe sat between University of Kentucky surgeons Dr. Charles Hoopes, left, and Dr. Mark Plunkett at a news conference at UK's Charles T. Wethington Building Monday. Plunkett held the internal workings of a SynCardia Total Artificial Heart such as the one implanted in Poe on Feb. 10. Lexington Herald-Leader

You can hear Zack Poe's heart approaching.

The 20-year-old with the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart strides into the room carrying a 131/2-pound device, called the Freedom Driver, that's as big as a briefcase and runs on batteries or electrical power.

Poe is the first Kentucky recipient of the SynCardia device.

He got his artificial heart on Feb. 10. University of Kentucky medical officials said Monday that a second transplant took place Wednesday with a Lexington man in his 50s. The hospital did not release the man's name, but officials said the man "is currently recovering in the hospital and doing well."

The SynCardia/Freedom Driver device sounds like a really quiet washing machine, and Poe said he doesn't mind the noise. As long as he hears it, he knows that he's alive and awaiting a heart transplant.

"The most awkward part is actually the hoses," he said of the device.

UK is one of 29 medical centers in the United States certified to perform the SynCardia procedure. The SynCardia setup is a bridge to a transplant heart, said Dr. Charles Hoopes, director of the UK heart and lung transplant program. A patient can live a fairly normal life with the SynCardia for months or years, Hoopes said, but it is not a long-term substitute for a heart transplant.

Poe, who grew up in Maysville and now lives in Hebron, didn't have a regular doctor before his health crisis. He walked four miles a day while working and had played soccer.

On Jan. 2, he went in for a doctor's appointment for what he thought was an ulcer.

From there, his condition progressively worsened.

Doctors later discovered that his heart-ejection fraction — a measurement that shows the amount of blood the heart can pump into the body with each beat — was less than 10 percent. Healthy people generally have heart-ejection fractions between 55 and 75 percent.

Then Poe's liver began to fail.

That's when he came to UK Chandler Hospital, where he underwent the four-hour SynCardia procedure. Although his heart was removed and examined, doctors still don't know what caused Poe's heart failure.

UK hopes to conduct six of the procedures a year, with an ultimate goal of 10 to 12 a year, Hoopes said.

UK Healthcare has been working with various techniques over the last few years to help patients stay out of hospital beds while they await life-saving procedures such as heart or lung transplants. Resting in the hospital was once considered the preferred treatment, but UK has increasingly worked with techniques that get patients out of bed, reasoning that it made them stronger candidates for surgery.

In 2011, a lung transplant patient, Ernie Gillispie of Pikeville, underwent a procedure that allowed him to use a smaller, simpler heart-lung machine, which made movement and even exercise possible while he awaited a double-lung transplant.

Poe is expected to leave the hospital by Tuesday. He has taken several short jaunts outside — one for sushi in Lexington and another to visit friends and family in Maysville.

Asked what he looked forward to doing when he gets home, he replied: "Sleeping in my own bed."

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