Every year in the United States, there are 50,000 persons in need of a heart transplant. There are on average 2,400 donor hearts available. What are the options available for the remaining 47,000 plus individuals that do not receive a transplant?
The artificial heart is able to replace the damaged heart of some of these individuals if they are able to meet certain clinical specifications. The artificial heart is able to prolong life until a heart transplant can be obtained when no other options exist for the patient and life expectancy is predicted to be less than 30 days.
Advantages of the artificial heart are that it is readily available and there is no need for immunosuppressive drugs, which can compromise renal function and leave the patient susceptible to infection. Patients who qualify for artificial heart programs are likely already suffering from organ damage or stress, due to the heart’s impaired ability to pump efficiently. The decreased blood flow that results impairs function in vital organs such as the liver, kidney, and brain.
The artificial heart restores hemodynamic stability, raising blood pressure and helping vital organs recover, as much as possible, in preparation for a heart transplant. For persons who are not heart transplant candidates, the artificial heart has allowed prolonged time with family and friends, and time to enjoy desired activities. Patients can even go home with a fully implanted artificial heart.
The artificial heart is not without risk, and those risks include wearing out or failure of the electrical motor, infection, and the need to take blood thinners to prevent clotting. Stroke and bleeding are also possible complications with the artificial heart. Another disadvantage of the artificial heart is that not all patients have a body size that allows the device to be implanted into the chest cavity, making small persons unable to receive the device.
The artificial heart may not be the answer for every patient, but for some patients it is the bridge that leads them back from nowhere. Medical technology continues to improve as researchers refine the artificial heart and attempt to make it an option for more patients.