Doctors cancel transplant after artificial organ helps Alberta teen’s heart heal itself
MARC BENCE/FOR METRO EDMONTON
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Sharon Mills felt her thoughts race from extreme joy to terror when doctors said her ailing 15-year-old daughter was making a rare recovery while awaiting a heart transplant.
“We had thought for sure that she was going to need a transplant,” she said. “When they first thought that her heart was beginning to heal itself, it was something that you were scared to hope for.”
The teenager was quickly fitted with a mechanical “Berlin Heart” last year to keep her alive since her own heart had become enlarged, causing her kidneys and lungs to slowly fail.
Soon afterwards, doctors were astonished to discover that her heart was healing itself, to the point where the device could be successfully removed.
In January, Melissa Mills became the first Canadian to be taken off the device.
“I’d like to keep it,” she said yesterday, holding the mechanical heart in her hands. “It was a life-saving device and it saved my life and it means so much to me.”
While her lifestyle now requires a steady intake of medications, fluids and strict sleeping schedules to keep her healthy, her family is thrilled with her recovery.
“It’s a little bit different, so we’ve just had to find a new kind of normal that works for us,” her mother said.
Health officials are now citing her unexpected improvement as a medical case that will be studied around the world.
“We are just beginning to understand all the implications for the Berlin Heart,” said Dr. Ivan Rebeyka, head of the pediatric cardiac surgery for Capital Health. “We are thrilled with Melissa’s outcome and excited by what this means for future patients.”
About a dozen young adults develop the same heart condition every year, he said, which is likely caused by a virus that attacks the heart muscles — although experts haven’t found definitive sources.
The device probably gave the teenager time to heal by taking stress off her body, said Dr. Holger Buchholz, an artificial heart specialist at the Stollery Children’s Hospital.
“When the pump is working, the heart is relaxed. It’s like a holiday for the heart,” he said. “Sometimes the heart muscle recovers, but, unfortunately, we don’t know which patients will recover.”
Hanging externally from the body as it pumps blood for the heart, the fist-sized device is used by 300 patients around the world, including 100 in North America.