What Makes a Donor Heart Available for Transplant Was Almost a ‘Deal Breaker’ for Pastor Who Needed One to Save His Life
A Massachusetts pastor supported by the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart for four months vows to live a life worthy of the person whose heart donation gave him a second chance at life.
TUCSON, Ariz. – Aug. 25, 2015 – Jim LaFontaine tries to live a life worthy of the person who donated the heart that gave the Essex, Massachusetts resident a second chance at life after he received a SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart implant that bridged him to that donor heart.
LaFontaine, 57, admits that while waiting for that matching donor heart, he struggled with the concept of receiving one.
“It was almost a deal breaker when I realized what someone had to do to for me to receive a donor heart,” says LaFontaine, a pastor at Emmanuel Community Church in Essex. “For me to receive a human heart means that someone is going to die. I can never in good conscious wish for a heart to come in.
“If the SynCardia Heart wasn’t just a bridge to transplant, if it was the destination, I think I would have considered just having a mechanical heart.”
When LaFontaine was 30 years old, a routine physical exam revealed a heart murmur. Eventually a cardiologist discovered that he was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, a condition that lessens the amount of blood flow to his entire body.
An aortic valve replacement and medications in 1991 stabilized his condition. Eighteen years later he developed ventricular tachycardia, a rapid and irregular heartbeat, for which he received a pacemaker and defibrillator.
LaFontaine’s heart weakened and in late 2012 he experienced severe breathing problems. “I felt like I was walking at the bottom of a pool underwater,” he says. “By that time, I thought, ‘I can’t live like this.’
“I used to dread going to bed because I couldn’t breathe and I had to get up so I could get more air into my lungs. It was a terrible feeling.”
In November 2012, he was admitted to a Salem, Massachusetts hospital and a few days later was transferred to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
LaFontaine didn’t respond to heart medication and doctors determined his two heart ventricles needed replacement. That’s when surgeons asked him to consider a SynCardia Total Artificial Heart implant.
Similar to a heart transplant, the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart replaces the native heart’s two failed ventricles and the four heart valves. It is the only approved device in use that eliminates the source of end-stage biventricular heart failure, a condition in which the native heart can no longer pump enough blood for the patient to survive.
LaFontaine relied on his faith to help him make a decision. “You have those discussions with God,” he says, “and ask the question, ‘Am I ready?’ Well, I’m as ready as I’m ever gonna be.”
He received the SynCardia Heart implant on February 7, 2013. “My first waking thought was that I could breathe. I felt instantly better. I hadn’t felt that good in years,” LaFontaine remembers.
To get into the best shape for his matching donor heart transplant, LaFontaine spent the next four months walking around the hospital grounds and lifting two 10-pound weights. When he received the 13.5-pound Freedom® portable driver on April 8, he carried that weight in a backpack while walking as much as five miles a day.
The Freedom® portable driver that powers the SynCardia Heart gives clinically stable patients significant mobility and allows them to be discharged from the hospital to recover at home and community. For LaFontaine that meant getting back to playing his guitar and participating in his church.
“I would call Sunday morning at the start of services and they would put me on speaker phone,” he says. “I would do the opening prayers.”
When LaFontaine received his donor heart on June 5, 2013, he saw it as a great gift. “This person had the forethought to donate their organs and what a beautiful thing that is,” he says. “At this point I’m alive because of someone else’s misfortune. I feel an obligation to live my life in a way that’s worthy of this gift.”
Since returning home, LaFontaine and his wife, Julie, have traveled and encouraged people to become organ donors. He is back ministering to his church, which held “A Modern Miracle Amongst Us” celebration in his honor.
He says he’s thankful for the support from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and SynCardia Systems, Inc., particularly SynCardia Clinical Support Specialist J. Elizabeth Oei, during his time on the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart. “She was really part of the whole process,” he says. “It was a good feeling.”
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About the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart
SynCardia Systems, Inc. in Tucson, Arizona is a medical technology company focused on developing, manufacturing and commercializing the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH-t). The SynCardia TAH-t is an implantable system designed to assume the full function of a failed human heart in patients suffering from end-stage biventricular (both sides) heart failure.
The SynCardia TAH-t is the only total artificial heart that is commercially available in the United States, European Union and Canada for use as a bridge to donor heart transplantation.
More than 1,475 implants of the SynCardia TAH-t account for over 480 patient years of life on the device. Since January 2010 more than 600 SynCardia TAH-ts have been implanted.
The youngest patient to receive a SynCardia TAH-t was 9 years old; the oldest was 80 years old. The longest a patient has lived with a SynCardia TAH-t before receiving a successful donor heart transplant was nearly four years (1,374 days).
SynCardia Systems also manufactures the Freedom® portable driver, which powers the SynCardia TAH-t while allowing clinically stable patients to be discharged from the hospital and live at home and in their communities. The Freedom® portable driver has been used by more than 235 patients, accounting for over 160 patient years of support.
About SynCardia Systems, LLC
SynCardia Systems, LLC in Tucson, Ariz., is the privately-held manufacturer of the world's first and only FDA, Health Canada and CE approved Total Artificial Heart. For people suffering from end-stage heart failure affecting both sides of the heart (biventricular failure), the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart is used as a bridge to transplant, helping them survive until a matching donor heart becomes available. SynCardia also manufactures the Freedom® portable driver, which powers the temporary Total Artificial Heart and allows clinically stable patients to be discharged from the hospital to enjoy life at home while they wait for a heart transplant.
Janelle Drumwright, firstname.lastname@example.org, (520) 547-7463