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Patient Story

Meet: Chris Marshall

  • Age: 51 (at implant)
  • Diagnosis: Dilated cardiomyopathy
  • Implant: Feb. 6, 2012
  • Freedom® discharge: March 21, 2012
  • Status: Waiting for a matching donor heart
  • Residence: Wasilla, Alaska
  • Hospital: University of Washington Medical Center
  • Surgeon: Dr. Nahush A. Mokadam

Hiking 3 to 5 Miles Daily

I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy in 1999. I actually did very well with a low heart ejection fraction for many years. My doctors did a really good job of managing me medically. I was doing a lot of hiking - 3 to 5 miles a day - with an ejection fraction around 20 percent. A healthy ejection fraction is around 50 to 70 percent.

Like Someone Punching You in the Chest

I also suffered from ventricular tachycardia, where my heart would go into an abnormal rhythm. I received a defibrillator/pacemaker to help regulate my heart rhythms the same year I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. I always felt my ventricular tachycardia coming on, so I knew when I was in an abnormal rhythm. I would go into "bear down mode," bracing myself for a shock from my defibrillator, which feels kind of like someone punching you in the chest. It's pretty violent, but in my case, it was always able to bring me back to a normal rhythm. During the 12 years I had the pacemaker/defibrillator, I was shocked 30 times.

In Need of a Heart Transplant

The past few years, I started having problems with edema, which is swelling caused by extra fluid in the body. In October 2011, I really started to notice that I was going downhill. I was experiencing shortness of breath while walking on level ground, which had never happened to me before. The doctors told me that they had done about all they could for me, and that I needed to start consulting with other hospitals about a potential heart transplant. I was a little insulted because I felt so good, despite my ejection fraction being 20 percent.

My wife Kathy and I arranged a trip to Seattle on Jan. 24, 2012, for a one-day visit to University of Washington Medical Center so I could undergo a heart transplant evaluation. When we arrived, the doctors told me I was too sick to fly home and they wanted to admit me to the hospital.

Too Sick for an LVAD

Tests revealed that my ejection fraction was at only 6 percent. That was when the doctors introduced me to the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart. They said they wouldn't consider a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) because my right ventricle was too weak.

I was walking 20 laps a day in the hospital hallways at a very fast clip, so when my surgeon told me that he wanted to replace my heart with the Total Artificial Heart, it seemed kind of drastic. Sometimes when you get used to having a chronic medical condition, you go into denial about how sick you really are.

They told me I needed to do something or else I was going to die.

Let's Go Ahead With It

My surgeon, Dr. Nahush Mokadam, wanted to do the surgery on Feb. 6, but needed me to make the decision to do it. On Feb. 5, I ended up having ventricular tachycardia after walking my sixth lap around the hospital floor. I lost consciousness and when I woke up, I was lying on the floor with the IV pole next to me. After that, everyone agreed that the Total Artificial Heart wasn't a bad idea.

I told them yes, let's go ahead with it.

I was up and walking the second day after the implant surgery. I did really well with the Total Artificial Heart. They attribute that to my level of fitness. I didn't have other problems, such as organ failure, and I was physically fit other than my heart not working.

Freedom from the Hospital

I wouldn't have agreed to receive the Total Artificial Heart if they hadn't told me about the Freedom portable driver being an option. I was always was under the impression that I would get to a point where they could switch me from the 418-pound Big Blue hospital driver to the 13.5-pound Freedom portable driver.

I was switched to the Freedom driver on March 9, and discharged from the hospital on March 21. It was a very happy moment for me after 57 days in the hospital. I was ready to get out and start enjoying life again.

My Best Friend

I couldn't have done any of this without my wife Kathy. She has been fantastic. She hates when I call her a caregiver, but she has been a great caregiver. When we get ready to go out, she's always double-checking that I have extra batteries, my back-up Freedom driver, the AC charger, etc.

We've been married for 26 years. I tell her she really took our vows seriously when she said for better or for worse, because I've put her through the ringer. She answers, "Yep and I'm not leaving you now!"

I really love her and she loves me. We're great friends, and we enjoy doing things we've always enjoyed doing together. She's my best friend.

Hiking 400+ Miles without a Human Heart

We've hiked 437 miles since my discharge. We've gone hiking in the back country, gone on road trips and eaten at restaurants. People along the bike trails sometimes recognize me from the news stories and say, "Good job man!" and "We're praying for you!"

I feel so much better with the Total Artificial Heart than I was feeling before. My color is greatly improved, my vitality is going up. With the Total Artificial Heart and the Freedom driver, I really get to go out and live life.

Enjoying Life

The Total Artificial Heart has really been a blessing. I'm just feeling wonderful. We're really getting out and enjoying life, all thanks to the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart and the skilled surgeons, physicians and nurses at UW.

I've realized that life is fragile and you never know when it's going to be your last day. You should never take it for granted. Live life to the fullest for as long as you have it.

UW Medicine slideshow narrated by Dr. Nahush A. Mokadam
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*The SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart was formerly known as the
SynCardia temporary CardioWest™ Total Artificial Heart.

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