Dr. Mark Plunkett Explains How SynCardia Total Artificial Heart Has Revolutionized Heart Transplants

| by Cassandra Cassillas

In April, the 1,300th SynCardia implant was performed, signaling an enormous accomplishment in the field of medicine.

Similar to a heart transplant, the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart replaces the two failing ventricles and four heart valves. It is the only device that eliminates the source and symptoms of end-stage heart failure.

The press release announcing the monumental 1,300th implant stated that SynCardia can save the “sickest of the sick” – and that is not an exaggeration. The implant functions as a bridge to patients in desperate need of a heart transplant, allowing them to be discharged from the hospital and get into better shape before the transplant, while eliminating the hospital bill charges they would have incurred.

“The SynCardia Heart saves patients dying of end-stage biventricular (both sides) heart failure, and the Freedom portable driver provides patients without human hearts a life worth living outside the hospital,” said Michael P. Garippa, CEO and President of SynCardia.

All electronics are located outside the body in an external driver, which powers the Total Artificial Heart with pulses of air and vacuum. While a real human heart pumps about five liters of blood a minute, the artificial implant can pump up to 9.5 liters a minute, which helps speed recovery of the patient’s vital organs.

The implant has helped patients ranging from 9 to 76 years old, and has aided more than 400 people since January of 2011.  

The device is the only Total Artificial Heart approved by the FDA, Health Canada and CE (Europe). According to SynCardia, 79 percent of patients who received the Total Artificial Heart were bridged to transplant the highest bridge-to-transplantation figure for any approved heart device in the world.

Dr. Mark Plunkett, an experienced cardiothoracic surgeon, admits that the success of this product is something he looks at to remind himself why he got into medicine.

“The heart is such a vital organ to the human body,” he said. “Without it, we are unable to sustain life. The fact that we are able to fabricate such an important organ in the human body save over a thousand lives, and empower individuals to walk, run, play, and live relatively normal lives again while awaiting a heart transplant is a powerful experience and it is the very reason I got into medicine in the first place.”

According to a 10-year clinical study – which resulted in the implant’s FDA approval – 65 percent of Total Artificial Heart patients were out of bed after five days and 75 percent were on their feet after one week. After two weeks, 60 percent of all patients were walking more than 100 feet.

Randy Shepherd, 40, received his Total Artificial Heart in June of last year. This April, Shepherd completed a 4.2-mile course entitled “Pat’s Run.” He became the first person without a real human heart to enter the race.

“I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone,” Shepherd said. “I wanted to prove that I could do it even though I’ve been handed circumstances that might not be the best.”

Plunkett says he is not surprised to hear about this sort of feat, stating, “I am constantly reminded of the resiliency of the human body.”

SynCardia reports that in its 30 years, the valves of the Total Artificial Heart have never failed. The diaphragm, which is responsible for pumping blood in to and out of the ventricles, has a failure rate of less than 1 percent.  

There are more than 3,000 people on the waiting list for a heart transplant at any given time, with only about 2,200 becoming available in the U.S. each year. Of the people on the list, it’s reported that 49 percent have been waiting a year or more.

The Total Artificial Heart has revolutionized the work of surgeons like Plunkett, while giving patients who are waiting for a transplant a second chance at life.