Man wears his 'heart' in a backpack for 555 days

11 June 2016

To passers-by, the 25-year-old Ypsilanti, Michigan, resident appeared to be a typical young adult. He enjoyed taking his three toddlers to the park and hanging out with his younger brother, Dominique.

What wasn't obvious was that a gray backpack Larkin carried was what kept him alive. Inside that bag was the power source for an artificial heart pumping in his chest.

Larkin's real heart was removed from his body in November 2014. It was replaced with a device that allowed Larkin to stay home instead of in a hospital while waiting to receive a transplant.

It finally arrived this year, in May. Now, Larkin is recovering from his procedure at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center. He is scheduled to return home next week.

"Most people would be scared to go so long with [an artificial heart], but I just want to tell them that you have to go through the fear, because it helps you," Larkin said. "I'm going home so fast after the transplant because it helped me stay healthy before the transplant."

At any given time, there are about 4,000 patients nationwide waiting for human heart transplants, according to the US Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Larkin didn't realise that his heart was suffering until nine years ago, when he collapsed without warning while playing in a basketball game. It turned out that Larkin had a genetic form of heart disease called familial cardiomyopathy. His brother, Dominique, 24, was soon found to have it, too.

The condition occurs when heart muscle stretches and enlarges the open area of at least one heart chamber, inhibiting the organ from pumping blood efficiently.

The type of cardiomyopathy seen in Stan and Dominique, called arrhythmogenic dysplasia, causes arrhythmias and failure on both sides of the heart, said Dr Jonathan Haft, a cardiac surgeon at the University of Michigan who operated on the brothers.

"It's an awful condition to have," Haft said. "But the technology available and the technology that is evolving in the field of heart failure is very exciting. The total artificial heart falls into that category."

Both brothers eventually progressed to heart failure and cardiogenic shock, and they were equipped with artificial heart devices in late 2014. Dominique stayed in the hospital with his device for six weeks before receiving a human heart transplant.

But Larkin, who was thriving with the device, was the perfect candidate to live outside the hospital, Haft said.

"I was shocked when the doctors started telling me that I could live without a heart in my body and that a machine was going to be my heart. Just think about it - a machine," Larkin said.

It's not the first time a patient has lived for a long time with an artificial heart, but Larkin became the first patient in Michigan to go home with the portable device.

The SynCardia temporary artificial heart in Larkin's chest replaced his failing heart, including its chambers and four valves. Two tubes, exiting the left side of Stan's body beneath the ribcage, connected the artificial heart to a 13-pound machine called the Freedom Driver.

The driver, which was carried in a backpack, not only powered the artificial heart, it delivered pumps of compressed air into the heart's ventricles, allowing blood to be pumped through the body.

"Stan was very active and did an immaculate job taking care of himself and taking care of the equipment used to keep him alive," Haft said.

With his life-saving backpack in tow, Larkin played pick-up games of basketball, enjoyed time with his children and rode in the car with his friends.

"It's just like a real heart," Larkin said. "It's just in a bag with tubes coming out of you, but other than that, it feels like a real heart. ... It felt just like a backpack with books in it, like if you were going to school."

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