No more heart-in-a-backpack for Michigan man

Stan Larkin wearing the SynCardia device that kept him alive for over a year until transplant surgery this May(Credit: University of Michigan)

In January 2015, then-24-year-old Stan Larkin left The University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center with an artificial heart in his chest and the pump that drove it on his back in a bag. Larkin was the first person to receive the completely artificial heart in Michigan and for a year, it kept him alive by pushing blood through his circulatory system. Now, Larkin has traded his backpack in for a real heart, having gotten a transplant last month.

The system that kept Larkin alive and thriving for over a year is known as a SynCardia Temporary Total Artificial Heart. It frees patients from a large hospital-based pumping machine known as Big Blue by providing them with a portable pump that only weighs 13 pounds. That means they can await their heart transplant not from a hospital bed, but while living their lives in the real world. Larkin even played games of basketball while on the system.

"He really thrived on the device," says Larkin's surgeon, Jonathan Haft. "This wasn't made for pick-up basketball. Stan pushed the envelope with this technology."

Larkin and his brother Dominique were born with a condition known as familial cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart that keeps it from pumping enough blood through the body. Dominique was able to get a heart transplant shortly after the diagnosis, but Larkin had to wait more than a year while, in effect, carrying part of his heart on his back.

"It was an emotional rollercoaster," says Larkin, now 25, of his experience. "I got the transplant two weeks ago and I feel like I could take a jog as we speak. I want to thank the donor who gave themselves for me. I'd like to meet their family one day. Hopefully they'd want to meet me."

As heart disease outgrows the list of people willing to donate their organs, the SynCardia device may come into play more and more, granting patients the gift of time and mobility as they await transplant surgery.

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