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Heart device gives patient freedom during wait for heart transplant

Michael Richards feels “lucky” to be alive after heart failure diagnosis

Michael Richards, 25, has a total artificial heart controlled by wearable technology, giving him the freedom to visit Ann Arbor's Hands On Museum with his 2-year-old daughter.

“I was a nervous wreck,” says Michael Richards, Jr., 25, about the first time he and his family changed the battery for the backpack-sized device that controls his heart.

When most people hear “wearable technology,” they think of fitness trackers and enhanced glasses. The total artificial heart works on a higher level — allowing heart patients independence as they wait for a heart transplant.

The 14-pound Freedom® Driver, which Richards carries in a backpack, powers the total artificial heart with precisely calibrated pulses of air. The University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the only Michigan heart program to send patients home with the wearable technology.

Before SynCardia Systems, Inc. developed the portable driver, patients would have to stay in the hospital connected to a washing machine-sized power driver for months as they waited for a heart transplant.

New hope for heart failure patients

You might need a TAH for one of two reasons:

  • To keep you alive while you wait for a heart transplant
  • If you’re not eligible for a heart transplant, but you have end-stage heart failure in both ventricles

It’s often used when end-stage heart failure affects both sides of the heart and other more common heart-supporting devices are inadequate to keep patients alive.

For more than a year, Richards remembers feeling exhausted and bloated from retaining fluids. He was referred to the U-M after an implantable cardiac defibrillator did not help his heart keep pace with his body’s needs.The cause of his heart failure is still unknown.

“We typically refer to patients in this category as idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy,” says his surgeon Jonathan Haft, M.D, associate professor of cardiac surgery at the U-M Frankel Cardiovascular Center. “Sometimes there can be a genetic predisposition called familial cardiomyopathy, and sometimes heart failure can be caused by viruses.

“Nonetheless, his heart failure progressed to the point where medications were no longer effective,” Haft says.

Surgeons removed the failing heart and implanted the total artificial heart on June 20, 2015. Richards was discharged from the hospital July 31 and the next date he’s looking forward to: heart transplantation.

Michael Richard at Hands on stairs

Michael Richards, 25, has a Syncardia total artificial heart which is controlled by a power supply he carries in his backpack. Wearable technology gives him the freedom to visit Ann Arbor’s Hands On Museum with his 2-year-old daughter.

“Lucky to be alive”

Richards is on a blood thinner, eats a low-salt diet, exercises daily to get in shape and takes a diuretic and blood pressure pill. It may sound complicated to some but after years of heart failure Richards considers himself lucky to be alive.

“I’m used to it after this first year. Now it’s a breeze,” he says of the routine of carrying the device around and making sure he always has back-up power. “To have this opportunity has been great. I have more energy and can play with my daughter.”

Take the next steps

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The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is a top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.