Thomas Joyner no longer feels his heart whir when he puts his hand to his chest. He can feel it beat again. A revolutionary device embedded near his heart gave him time to live until a transplant last week.
In May, Joyner was days or less from dying of congestive heart failure, a longtime condition that had weakened him over the years. Now fluid was building up in his lungs; his organs were shutting down. There was no donor heart available. He became the first person in the state to have a HeartMate II implanted.
While he waited for a new heart, he went on with his life, put on 25 lost pounds and regularly went out walking. The 48-year-old arrived for the transplant so healthy that he went home on Thursday, eight days later.
Now he wants to go back to work installing electronics and go back to school. He wants to get back out fishing for red drum. He can't wait to be able to get back in a bathtub, or go swimming, or watch his son's football games. He plans to stop for a Wendy's hamburger.
"You have no idea," he said as he sat at the edge of his hospital bed waiting for discharge. "It seems like the world's the limit right now."
"Eight days after the operation he goes home, that's pretty incredible," said Medical University heart surgeon Dr. John Ikonomidis, who performed the surgery. "You see the work of this fantastic device, all the machinery comes out and in its place is a brand new heart muscle. That's really remarkable."
Joyner survived because of a machine the size of a cell phone and a tube that snakes around the left ventricle, pumping blood for the heart. The HeartMate II operates with a rotor instead of a regular pump. More compact and efficient than earlier devices, it allows the worst-case heart patients to live at home waiting for a donor heart.
"It's a pretty amazing idea that the patient for a period of time is (running on) half muscle, half machine," Ikonomidis said.
Recently approved as a treatment for those transplant patients, the HeartMate II is now being considered by federal regulators as an ongoing treatment for those patients who aren't eligible for transplant.
"People get so sick they run out of time," said Dr. Jennifer Peura, Medical University heart failure and transplant cardiologist, who directs the device program. "For those people (the device) is a lifesaver."
Transplants are desperately needed but dependent on tragedy.
As of Thursday, more than 103,000 people were waiting an organ transplant in the nation, according to the United States Network for Organ Sharing. There had been a few more than 6,000 donors this year. It's a decision made by families under heart-wrenching circumstances.
Joyner doesn't yet know the donor of his new heart; that information will be shared after a year. He will be able to write a letter to the family thanking them.
"It's sad that it's something where somebody else had to lose their life so you can live. I want the family to know I am grateful. I will take care of this heart. I won't abuse it," Joyner said. The former paramedic knew what he was in for before the device was implanted, but he had little idea what it would do.
"I had run out of options. It was the end of the line. It was either that or die on the table," he said. "You go from not having a life, because you can't do anything, to feeling like you can do whatever you want."
The other day he watched on a monitor as a healthy heart throbbed inside him for the first time in 20 years.
"It really puts out. It's amazing. I haven't felt this good since I was a teenager," he said. "I'm going to get going again, without batteries."