LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Robert Tools, the first person to receive a fully self-contained artificial heart, died Friday of internal bleeding and organ failure after living with the device whirring in his chest for 151 days. He was 59.
The death was announced by doctors Laman Gray Jr. and Robert Dowling, who implanted the softball-sized device at Jewish Hospital on July 2.
They said the death was not caused by problems with the AbioCor heart device. They blamed the abdominal bleeding on longstanding health problems.
The hospital said the bleeding started Thursday and Tools’ organs began failing that night. He died Friday afternoon.
“Mr. Tools and his family members are heroes,” Dowling said. “Their willingness to be the first to participate in the AbioCor clinical trial could potentially pave the way for a revolutionary treatment option for advanced heart disease.”
Tools was suffering from congestive heart failure, diabetes and kidney disease when one of his physicians, Dr. Joseph Fredi, remembered the research going on in Louisville. Tools had been given little chance of surviving 30 days without the surgery.
The retired telephone company worker underwent seven hours of surgery, but didn’t step before the public until August. After a standing ovation from hospital employees and others, Tools smiled and whispered that the hardest thing to get used to was the “whirring sound” that let him know he was alive.
Tools said he had a choice “to stay home and die or come here and take a chance. I decided to come here and take a chance.”
“I realize that death is inevitable, but I also realize that if there’s an opportunity to extend it, you take it,” he said.
Four other patients across the country have had the same surgery and are living with AbioCor hearts. A fifth patient underwent the surgery in Houston this week but did not survive the operation.
The plastic-and-titanium device is made by Abiomed Inc. of Danvers, Mass. Unlike earlier artificial hearts, like the Jarvik-7, it has no wires or tubes that stick out of the chest and connect to a big compressor.
The AbioCor patients are part of a federally approved clinical trial by Abiomed, which hopes to have the device on the market within the next few years.
Doctors and officials at Abiomed had been pleased with Tools’ steady progress over four months.
In early November, Tools was able to have collard greens and a cheesesteak during an outing with Louisville’s mayor. He had recovered enough to make frequent day excursions outside the hospital, including a fishing trip, and doctors had said they hoped he could be home for Christmas.
That changed when he suffered a stroke Nov. 11. Blood-thinning drugs are often given to patients to prevent clots that can cause strokes, but Tools could not be given high doses because such drugs can also cause internal bleeding.
“After our decision to participate in this experimental procedure, he has been able to make a difference for mankind, enjoy some of his favorite things in life, and experience a bit of notoriety – and for Bob, nothing could have been better,” she said in the hospital statement.
On the Net:
Jewish Hospital Artificial Heart Project: http://www.heartpioneers.com
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