Sunday, April 20, 2008

Can A Man Survive Without A Heart?

I bet you would be a little astonishing by just looking at the title and probably asked yourself, ‘How can a man live without a heart?’

In fact, there is nothing wrong about the title. In Taiwan, a 60-year-old retired electrician lived for 16 days without a heart but supported by 2 artificial heart-lung machines while he was waiting for heart transplant at the National Taiwan University Hospital (NTUH). He is believed to be the world’s first heartless survivor.

During January 2008, the retired electrician, who had no prior record of major illnesses, suffered from severe coughing and displayed flu-like symptoms. On February 12, he was admitted to Chi Mei Medical Centre (CMMC) in Southern Tainan City.

He was diagnosed with infective endocarditis - a bacterial infection that can seriously damage the lining of the heart's chambers and valves. His heart failed just a day after and doctors had to perform emergency surgery. His entire heart was removed because the damage was so extensive.

The patient’s family took only 20 minutes to decide the removal of the heart but the operation required 9 hours. The patient’s son, who was a doctor with CMMC, understood the risk and helped the decision.

After the removal of heart, the patient was connected to an 'Extra-Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation' (ECMO) machine. ECMO is the artificial heart-lung machine normally used to support a patient's damaged or infected heart or lungs until a donor of heart is found.

In order to have a higher chance of getting donor in Taipei, the patient was transferred the next day by an ambulance to the top hospital in Taiwan, NTUH. The journey took about 5 hours.

Upon arrival at NTUH, a second ECMO machine was connected to the patient. Artificial arteries transferred blood from the gaping hole in his chest to an external blood pump and artificial lung. The blood was warmed and filtered before being returned to his body. During the waiting period, he suffered blood infections twice.

The doctors had also considered but later on dropped the option of an artificial heart transplant because they were concerned about the risk of infection given his condition. A donor was eventually found on February 29, and he was discharged on April 1 and he is now recovering at home.

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