Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S. Each year more than 600,000 people die of heart disease — that’s one in every four deaths.
A growing number of people are now living with artificial hearts while waiting for a heart transplant. Amid American Heart Month, CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy looked at how a permanent fake heart may one day beat inside a person’s chest and make the waiting unnecessary.
At first glance, you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with Lance White, until you notice his backpack, tubes and an unusual sound.
“It’s white noise to me. When people tell me about it, I hear it,” White said.
It’s the sound of his heart beating – not exactly. The one he was born with had to be removed when he had heart failure at age 47. He now has a total artificial heart beating inside his body.
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“If it stops, I’m in trouble. I don’t exist anymore,” White said.
Two artificial ventricles are implanted in his chest. They are attached to a set of tubes connected to an external battery carried around in a backpack. It pumps about 130 bursts of air per minute, replicating a rapid heartbeat. That noise is always there.
Some patients decide to die of natural causes rather than live with an unnatural machine, but White never thought twice.
“I don’t want to turn the switch off. I have a lot more life to live. I have young kids. I want to see them grow up and finish school and have kids,” White said.
He’s one of about 2,000 people worldwide who have received a total artificial heart.
“We put this in place because otherwise death will occur within 24 (to) 48 hours,” said Dr. Francisco Arabia, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Cedars Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles. According to Arabia, the problem is a lack of donor hearts – as many as 100,000 people in the U.S. need new hearts, but only about 4,000 made the wait list and little more than 2,500 received a transplant last year.
“It’s a matter of having a higher demand than supply,” Arabia said. “We use the total artificial heart to give patients the time to be able to wait for the correct donor.”
White has been waiting for almost two years.
“I’m hoping this year will be my year. Patience is a virtue,” White said.
Companies such as Syncardia are working on creating a permanent artificial heart for widespread use that could last for decades and one day make donor hearts unnecessary. But it’s no easy task – our hearts pump about 2,000 gallons of blood every day and service more than 60,000 miles of blood vessels.
“If we can develop a total artificial heart that is completely internal, that would be a true game changer,” Arabia said.
White will hopefully get a donor heart soon. He and his wife, Lisa, want the “load” off his back. And once it comes off, the first thing Lisa wants to do is “put a basketball in (her husband’s) hand and take him to the gym.” But her husband has something else on his mind.
“I think more about wanting to meet the family — if I’m ever allowed to do that — of the person who was able to donate the heart,” White said. “And thank them and let them see, you know, who I am and what they’ve done for me and my family. That’s what I think about. That’s what I think about.”