MEMPHIS, Tenn. – In an extraordinary operation, a Mississippi man’s heart was removed and replaced with what Baptist Memorial Hospital doctors call a “total artificial heart” — battery-charged electromechanical devices that will keep the 41-year-old man’s blood pumping until a heart transplant can be arranged.
Wearing a surgical-style mask decorated with an American flag and the motto “United We Stand,” artificial heart recipient Brian Pedigosaid Wednesday that his life since his first heart attack —which came “11 days before my 33rd birthday” — had been a constant struggle with heart disease, including a “massive” 2017 heart attack and the almost complete bodily shutdown that led to his Sept. 3 surgery at Baptist.
“I was close to giving up,” said Pedigo, who lives in Booneville, about 115 miles southeast off Memphis, with his wife, Amy Pedigo, their two dogs, Remington and Angel, and a pot-bellied pig named Sassy Mae, nicknamed Sassy Pants. (“She talks back to Brian, that’s why I call her Sassy Pants,” Amy explained.)
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Fortunately, the artificial heart — essentially, a pair of pumps that replace the removed ventricles of the heart — has given Pedigo a new lease on life, literally.
“I feel great,” said Pedigo, sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. Unsurprisingly, he looked thin and sounded hoarse. “For the last eight years, I’ve fought, gone down and come back,” he said.
Dr. Dmitry Yaranov, Pedigo’s primary cardiologist at Baptist, said only about 15 operations of the type that saved Pedigo have been performed in history.
“This is the most complex, the rarest and the highest-risk operation a heart patient can go through,” he said.
Also, “the most technically challenging,” said Dr. Rachel Harrison, the surgeon who performed the operation with Dr. Martin Strueber, Baptist chief of cardiac surgery and thoracic transplantation.
“It’s a very unconventional approach,” said Michelle Lorenz, administrative director of transplant services at Baptist. “But we had to do it to save his life.”
Pedigo had been receiving treatment in Corinth, Mississippi, before doctors there sent him to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. From there, he came to Memphis, where his failing health called for extreme measures.
“His lungs were no longer oxygenating his blood,” Harrison said. “His liver was starting to fail. His kidneys were starting to fail.”
Deemed too ill to survive a conventional heart transplant, Pedigo instead received what Yaranov called a “total artificial heart,” even though the atria — the smaller upper chambers of the heart — are left behind in this type surgery, to receive blood from the veins. In place of the removed ventricles are a pair of “ventricular assist devices,” sewn in place with felt-like “cuffs.”
The devices are regarded by doctors as “a bridge to transplantation,” meaning that it is supposed to be replaced by a donor heart, eventually. To this end, Pedigo also received a type of breast implant, to fill the hollow left behind by the removed heart and act as a “spacer,” to keep the chest ready for a future heart transplant.
The surgery lasted hours. Amy Pedigo said that due to COVID-19 concerns, she couldn’t spend all that time in the hospital. “I stayed in my vehicle, and they would call me every hour with updates.”
Surgery aside, “She never left my side,” Pedigo said. The Pedigos have seven children, ages 13 to 25, and six grandchildren. “Family is everything to me,” Brian Pedigo said.
Although the extremity of Pedigo’s case is unusual, heart troubles are not. Yaranov said “ischemic heart disease” — which involves the reduction of blood flow to the heart due to blockages in the arteries — is the top killer of white men in the United States. The Mid-South in particular is America’s “coronary disease belt,” he said, with the highest incidence of heart disease in the nation.
Why? “Genetics, diet and lifestyle,” Yaranov said. “That Southern diet.”
As a result of the surgery, Pedigo — a construction worker and auto mechanic — has to make what he called a “major life adjustment.” Most notably, he now has two tubes emerging from this torso. These tubes connect the pumps of his artificial heart to outside-the-body batteries that he carries in shoulder-strap bags. The batteries keep the artificial heart running. They, in turn, must be charged periodically, like a cellphone.
Is dealing with the batteries a burden? “If it keeps me alive,” Pedigo said, “I don’t care.”
In any event, a sure sign of Pedigo’s progress is this very story: Baptist officials waited until they were certain the surgery was a success before contacting a reporter via email. The email contained this remarkable subject line: “Surgeons save a patient’s life by removing his heart.”
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Tennessee doctors removed a man’s heart to save his life