Life-saver for a life saver

Thomas Joyner undergoes a checkup Wednesday of his HeartMate II with technician Eniko Kulcsar at the Medical University of South Carolina hospital. The device is keeping Joyner alive until he receives a heart transplant.

This time, it was a paramedic and volunteer firefighter who needed rescuing; and the Medical University of South Carolina hospital became the first in the state to implant a device intended to keep him alive and at home while he awaits a new heart.

The MUSC Heart and Vascular Team recently implanted the HeartMate II device into Thomas Joyner, a soon-to-be 48-year-old who suffers from congestive heart failure.

"I was so weak at that time that I almost didn't survive it," Joyner said about his enlarged heart and his decision to have the device implanted. "Now, the odds of me surviving a heart transplant are greatly, greatly increased."

This portable device makes at-home recovery feasible, while also decreasing the chances of clotting and strokes. The FDA-approved device is an LVAD, or left ventricular assist device, which is a pump that attaches to the heart and is designed to last three to five years.

Dr. Jennifer Peura, an MUSC heart failure and transplant cardiologist, said that because 30 percent of people awaiting a heart transplant die and because many more patients are not transplant eligible, the device serves two vital roles for patients such as Joyner.

"One, it creates a bridge for people to transplant. It keeps them alive until a heart is available, which in Thomas' case, it saved his life," Peura said. For others, it is an opportunity for organs to improve and for patients to become candidates for heart transplants.

A total of 402 heart transplants have taken place in South Carolina, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Web site. And according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, 2,763 people in the United States are currently waiting for a heart.

"There's a big problem in the United States because the supply just isn't big enough for the demand for hearts," said Dr. Matthew Toole, an MUSC cardiothoracic surgeon. "This device will tide people over until a heart is ready for them."

Toole said most of the mechanical problems with the HeartMate II's predecessor have been fixed. And the power line is much smaller on this device, significantly decreasing infection rates.

Peura said that before he got the device, Joyner was unable to walk a city block. She said that after post-implantation tests, he is capable of something as taxing as doubles tennis.

"It gives patients good opportunities if it can take someone as sick as he was, and then see him be someone as active as he is now, enjoying life," she said. "He stands to tolerate the surgery and much more."

Joyner said his faith in God, his rehabilitation programs and his three children give him the strength to get through such difficult times. His 13-year-old son, Drayton Joyner, said the device allows his father to "act like his old self now."

"I hope a lot of people see this and say, 'I can survive to have a heart transplant,' " Joyner said. "I'm in better shape with this device than when I came in here."