PHOENIX — Mayo Clinic Hospital in northeast Phoenix made history on May 3, 2010, when it became the first hospital in the U.S. to discharge a patient with an artificial heart — after he had been hospitalized for more than two years.
But to call him a “man without a heart” would have been met with serious challenge by his family, friends and caregivers. Charles Okeke, 43, husband and father of three young children, was implanted with an artificial heart on Sept. 3, 2008, after his own heart had suffered damage so significant that it had to be removed entirely.
But Okeke was never without a support system — both mechanical and human. The artificial heart, which can pump up to 9.5 liters of blood for the patient, was powered for more than 600 days by a 400-pound machine they call “Big Blue” because of its girth and color. The size of the machine required that Okeke remain hospitalized all that time.
That all changed on March 26, 2010, when the FDA granted conditional approval for a 13-pound version of the machine that does the same job in pumping blood that Big Blue did — only with much greater portability. The compact version, called the Freedom Driver, can be carried or worn as a backpack. And it allowed Okeke to finally go home to his family.
When the elevator doors leading to the atrium of Mayo Clinic Hospital opened on that milestone day, Okeke, his wife, Natalie, family members and caregivers were met by whoops, cheers and tears by hundreds of Mayo employees who had come to know and respect Okeke over the years. Prominent in the entourage was Dr. Francisco Arabia, Okeke’s surgeon and tireless advocate for FDA approval of the smaller device.
Okeke, fit and strong because of his resolve to stay healthy while awaiting the portable device, (he had worked out daily, lifting weights and doing cardio, all while tethered to 400-pound Big Blue in Mayo’s physical therapy area) left the hospital lobby and immediately escorted Natalie to a nearby garden, where, holding hands, they took in the sights of the flowers, cactus and striking blue sky.
As he was about to depart the hospital campus, headed home for the first time in more than two years, Okeke briefly addressed the crowd, noting that his stay at Mayo Clinic Hospital, thanks to his caregivers, was “almost” enjoyable.
Mayo Clinic is participating in an FDA Investigational Device Exemption of the Freedom Driver. The device is intended as a bridge-to-transplant. Okeke has been on his artificial heart for such an extended length of time because his body produces antibodies that make it challenging for him to receive a matching donor heart. His body rejected a previous donor heart a number of years ago.
His wait will now be more tolerable, surrounded by his close-knit and supportive family.
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About Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic is the first and largest integrated, not-for-profit group practice in the world. Doctors from every medical specialty work together to care for patients, joined by common systems and a philosophy of “the needs of the patient come first.” More than 3,700 physicians, scientists and researchers, and 50,100 allied health staff work at Mayo Clinic, which has campuses in Rochester, Minn; Jacksonville, Fla; and Scottsdale/Phoenix, Ariz.; and community-based providers in more than 70 locations in southern Minnesota., western Wisconsin and northeast Iowa. These locations treat more than half a million people each year. To obtain the latest news releases from Mayo Clinic, go to www.mayoclinic.org/news. For information about research and education, visit www.mayo.edu. MayoClinic.com (www.mayoclinic.com) is available as a resource for your health stories.