Artificial heart improves survival in children


by Jean Enersen

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Posted on May 15, 2012 at 11:07 AM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:45 AM

Evett Alvarez has grown taller since her last visit to Seattle Children's. She was in town for a routine follow up visit to check on her heart transplant.

Four years ago, no one was sure the Yakima girl would live long enough to receive a heart transplant. It saved her, and gave her energy for school, and for doing things with her family other kids take for granted.

"Helping them in the house, and helping my dad outside," said Evett with a shy smile.

Her new heart has given her priceless memories. There was a trip to Disneyland with family, complete with autographs from princess Belle, Woody, and Buzz Lightyear. Evett enjoys school and shopping trips with her mom. It's all amazing because the wait for a donor heart is often longer than a child's own failing heart can last.

"They really didn't have a good way to be bridged from the point of their end stage heart failure to transplant. And so, many of them would die waiting for a heart transplant," explainedDr. Gordon Cohen, Chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Seattle Children's.

Now a child sized artificial heart has changed the odds. Dr. Cohen led the team that first implanted the Berlin Heart at Seattle Children's in 2007. The hospital was one of a handful in the country that studied the revolutionary device. 

"It's actually partially on the inside, and partially on the outside. So the device itself has pipes that go into the heart and come out through the abdominal wall," explained Dr. Cohen.
The Berlin Heart offers a child a bridge in time until a heart is donated for transplant. With the device in place,  a child can play, move around the hospital, even go outside, while waiting for a donor heart.

"It's really I think a great step forward to be able to have this kind of technology and to be able to offer it to kids so they have the same opportunity the adult patients do," Dr. Cohen said.

Evett was one of the first young recipients. She will continue to have follow up visits to monitor her progress with her heart transplant. With the help of an interpreter Evett's mother followed her daughter's exam. To see her child so healthy now soothes her own heart.

"We see how she is, and we see that she's a lot better," Luz Alvarez said through her interpreter, adding her gratitude to Evett's health care team for the years of care that have given her child a future.

"Muy agradecido le hospital e los doctores," she said.

After years of study the Berlin Heart was recently approved for use in children by Food and Drug Administration.  It's now an option for an estimated two hundred children each year in the United States.