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Electric Pump Keeps Heart Patient Alive, Mobile Portable Device Will Do While Man, 37, Waits For Donor Heart

Kevin Stuber is ready to trade two hearts for one.

Nearly dead three months ago from a severely weakened heart, the 37-year-old man now enjoys drawing or taking walks in a South Hill park.

Thanks to an electrical pump that moves blood though his body, Stuber has a life again - and enough energy to plan for the next step in his recovery: a heart transplant.

“Last fall, he couldn’t walk around, he was that tired,” said his wife, Pam.

Still about 40 pounds below his regular weight, Stuber is regaining his sense of humor. “I’m the guy who shorts out in a rainstorm,” he said, pointing to a dualbattery holster pack that powers the pump.

His pump is the first of its kind installed in the Pacific Northwest. Only 14 other people nationwide have received such devices and been strong enough to go home.

Doctors at Sacred Heart Medical Center inserted the pump into Stuber’s abdomen and connected it to his heart in January.

He was released from the hospital last week.

The devices are used on people who need a new heart but might die before a donor is found. Rather than replacing the heart, the pump helps a weakened heart do its job.

The electric pump, still considered experimental, gives patients more mobility and ease of use compared with the earlier version, a pneumatic or airpowered design.

Both pumps weigh about 7 pounds and are placed in the lower right side of the abdomen and then attached to the heart.

The electric version - which costs $46,000 - connects to an external battery pack. The pneumatic pumps, which have been in use for three years and are federally approved, connect to a VCR-sized console that pushes air into the device.

When wearing the battery pack, Stuber is free to move around, walk, take a bike ride or go shopping.

“He can do anything except take a bath or swim,” said Dr. Timothy Icenogle, Stuber’s doctor and member of the Inland Northwest Cardiothoracic Organ Transplant Program.

Living in Great Falls, Mont., with his family, Stuber had only one previous health problem - a virus infection four years ago that led his doctors to start monitoring his heart.

Last fall, he grew weak and began losing weight. He was no longer able to do contract labor or work as a house mover.

He visited Sacred Heart in January, then decided to move to Spokane when he learned his best hope was to become a transplant patient.

On his second visit to the hospital, it became clear Stuber was close to dying. Doctors told him they would insert the pump the next day.

“He was clearly dying. He looked like a concentration camp victim,” said Icenogle.

He’s since gained back about 20 pounds, his wife said.

Doctors estimate Stuber will wait six months to a year or longer to find a new heart.

It’s possible, said Icenogle, that the electric pump could prolong Stuber’s life indefinitely if no donor is found.

“We don’t know how long the pump will keep going,” he said. “It’s new. We’re still learning.”

Sacred Heart is the fifth hospital in the country allowed to use the electric device.

Stuber said he’s ready to get a new heart the moment a donor is found. “Then I’ll go to school and get a degree, maybe in electronics,” he said.

For his wife Pam, the sound of the electric pump is both a comfort and a reminder of her obligation to be near Stuber at all times.

“Next to him at night, I can hear it going. It’s always on. I’m still not used to it.”

If the batteries fail, Stuber has three options: plug the pump into the battery charger; inject an anticlotting drug and rush to the hospital; or attach a hand-powered device that keeps the pump working until power is restored.

Icenogle said the device, once it’s given full approval, will cut medical costs.

“It allows the patient to go home, and that reduces the cost of keeping the patient in the hospital. That option is far more expensive for all us,” he said.

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