Mayo patient on artificial heart receives heart transplant

PHOENIX – Some say it was against all odds. Others insist it is nothing short of divine intervention.

Charles Okeke, the Phoenix husband and father of three, made headlines in May 2010 when he became the first patient in the U.S. to be discharged from a hospital with an artificial heart. With the latest technology, the “Freedom Driver,” the man without a heart was able to resume his family life and to be free of the confines of a hospital room.

But as of Jan. 15, 2011, Okeke no longer requires the breakthrough technology that allowed him that freedom and life’s simple pleasures – reading to his kids, outings with his wife, Natalie, and, as he has mentioned, “sleeping in my own bed.”

On Jan. 15, 2011, Okeke, 43, became the recipient of a heart transplant – and a kidney transplant – at Mayo Clinic Hospital, to the delight of his surgical and medical teams, family, friends and caregivers. While he had long hoped that the next chapter in his journey with cardiac disease would be a heart transplant, his body produces antibodies that made it challenging for him to receive a matching donor heart. The heart transplant he received at age 30 rejected, and by the time he came to Mayo Clinic, he required the support of an artificial heart.

At the time, the machine that powered Okeke’s artificial heart, dubbed “Big Blue” for its size and color, weighed 400 pounds, requiring him to be hospitalized at Mayo for more than 600 days because of the lack of mobility. Then, during a historic moment on May 3, 2010, “Big Blue” was swapped for a 13-pound version, allowing him to finally breathe air outside of the hospital and to go home – the first in the U.S. to do so.

The 13-pound “Freedom Driver” received conditional approval by the FDA as a bridge-to-transplant device as part of a clinical trial.

Mayo heart Transplant surgeon Dr. Francisco Arabia, who had championed the cause for FDA approval for the clinical trial, said the 12-hour surgery to implant Okeke’s new heart was followed later by a kidney transplant – from the same donor. Because of stress on his kidneys following his first heart transplant, it was optimal to do a combined heart/kidney transplant.

“It was a long wait, but fortunately a donor heart was made available that was a good fit for Charles’ unique antibody makeup. It takes longer to get the right combination, and the wait was worth it. We expect Charles to do well,” said Dr. Arabia.

To request an appointment at Mayo Clinic, please call 480-422-1490 for the Arizona campus, 904-494-6484 for the Florida campus, or 507-216-4573 for the Minnesota campus.


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