Man receives first artificial and portable heart in Minn.

Walking halls
Alvin Carter, right, and his sister Orene Bryant walk the halls of St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester Thursday. Carter is the first patient to leave a Minnesota hospital without a human heart. Mayo Clinic doctors installed an artificial heart powered by a portable device in the first such operation to take place in Minnesota.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Alvin Carter left St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester Thursday afternoon with a lifeline strapped to his back.

Inside a backpack is a portable device that keeps the artificial heart in Carter's chest beating.

"It feels good because I'm not dragging anymore," he said.

The machine pumping Carter's artificial heart is called a Freedom Driver, Manufactured by SynCardia Systems Inc., it weighs about 13 pounds and pumps air into his new artificial heart. Carter, 51, who lives near Detroit, is becoming accustomed to its constant sound.

On March 9, Mayo doctors replaced Carter's failing heart, after he was diagnosed with amyloidosis, a condition that was damaging his heart through protein buildup. That means neither ventricle inside his heart could pump blood.

Carter is the first person in Minnesota to receive an artificial heart with a portable pump. Inside his room at St. Mary's Hospital Thursday morning, he showed off the backpack where he carries the unit.

"This right here is the backpack," he said. "The Freedom Driver is inside here. It's strapped down inside the backpack."

Two air hoses come out of his body near his ribcage and connect the heart to the pump. Two batteries in the bag keep the machine pumping for about two hours. He has AC and car adapters for the pump, too.

Carter said the portable driver represents a huge improvement in his quality of life. Before doctors switched him to the portable device, he was tethered to a 400-pound machine that pumped his artificial heart.

"I'm not used to being tied down in a sense so it really, really helped," he said of the new heart. "And then you just have to learn the functions and learn be more positive and be more sure of yourself and trying to take care of yourself because it involves you learning a lot about yourself."

Nationwide, 3,160 people are waiting for heart transplants, according to the Organ Procurement Transplantation Network — including 174 in Minnesota.

He is one of about 1,000 patients worldwide to receive a total artificial heart. The heart costs about $125,000. Maintaining the external pump costs another $18,000 a year.

His doctor, Mayo cardiac surgeon Lyle Joyce said using the device is not just about changing batteries. Carter had to learn to read the meters and keep it medically clean.

"There's just certain things that you need to learn how to handle and situations that you need to be prepared for, should it ever happen, hoping that it never happens," Joyce said. "It's a fair training session that he has to go through."

In some parts of the country, the wait time for heart transplants is long, Joyce said. Having a device small enough to send artificial heart patients home is a huge advancement.

"Here in Minnesota, we'll wait an excess of two years many times for a donor heart to arrive," Joyce said. "Consequently, it's just not practical to have a patient live in the hospital for that period of time."

Before Carter left the hospital, his sister, Orene Bryant, 63, had to pass a written test to make sure she knew how to use the machine. She received the good news Thursday morning from one of Joyce's colleagues, Cardiologist Naveen Pereira.

With that, doctors gave Carter and his sister the green light to leave the hospital.

"Every day gets better," Carter said. "Now I'm wondering what I'm going to do you know in the spare time. I got to walking this morning and I was like 'wow, I'm getting restless now.' "

Carter will stay in Rochester for about a month to follow up with doctors. Then he will move to Michigan to be closer to his family and where he will wait until a heart transplant becomes available.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Lyle Joyce's title. The current version is correct.

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