Dr. James Davis

Dr. James Davis

Contributed photo

Rick Whittington has dealt with heart pain for 25 years, but he now has Iowa's first artificial heart and is looking forward to a much brighter future.

Whittington, 59, of Geneseo, Ill., became the first total artificial heart transplant done in Iowa 34 days ago. He has progressed quite well, his doctor said, and was sent home Tuesday.

"We are very pleased with Mr. Whittington's rapid progress," said Dr. James Davis, a cardiac surgeon at University Hospitals, Iowa City. Davis performed the 10-hour operation on Whittington using an artificial heart made by SynCardia.

This artificial heart is the world's first of its kind approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a temporary bridge before a transplant. Patients are people dying from end-stage heart failure that affects both sides of their hearts. There are 25 patients on the device; Whittington is the 13th to go home, and 12 remain hospitalized. He is the first to be discharged from a hospital in the Midwest, the manufacturer reported.

Five heart attacks

Whittington's first heart attack occurred in 1985 and began a long series of serious health incidents. He has had five heart attacks, one stroke, open heart surgery for a bypass, two pacemakers and 11 stents implanted.

"I needed that heart," he said, speaking by cellphone as he was traveling home to Geneseo.

Whittington has lived in pain for the past 15 years.

"But now I feel great," he said. "I'm just a little sore from where they cracked my chest open. But it was well worth it."

Davis said Whittington fit the criteria for the new-style heart - he is 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, and has relatively healthy organs, including the liver and kidneys. He's a nonsmoker and doesn't drink.

"They won't give you this heart unless you take care of yourself," Whittington said.

He has a small hand cart that carries the heart's power source - a battery-operated device called a Freedom Driver. This gives patients such as Whittington the ability to be mobile, not possible with other artificial heart devices that basically keep patients within the confines of a hospital room.

On donor list

Whittington's discharge also came with his placement on a donor list for a heart transplant. Davis said the average wait for a transplant is six to 12 months, although the opportunity may occur in as little as a week, or not for three years. There are 10 to 15 heart transplants done in Iowa City each year, he added.

The SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart is related to previous devices, Davis said, including the Jarvik artificial heart, which in 1982 was the first one to be placed in a human being.

The modern SynCardia model replaces failing heart ventricles and the four heart valves, eliminating the symptoms and source of end-stage heart failure.

Doctors in Iowa City are feeling good about Whittington's case.

"Success like this gives you energy to keep going, to try and do more, for more people," Davis said.

Whittington has a more immediate goal.

"I just want to go home and enjoy some peace and quiet for a while," he said.