Total Artificial Heart both a bridge to transplant and a path to life for local woman

CINCINNATI -- The backpack that Tiernee Gonzalez wears allows her to live what she calls a "pretty normal" life thanks to a pioneering medical device she received at Cincinnati Children's Hospital .

Inside the ever-present backpack is a life-changing medical device that's powering her artificial heart.

The 20-year-old Hamilton resident is the first female to have a Total Artificial Heart implanted at a pediatric hospital. She was outfitted with the device because she has restrictive cardiomyopathy, where the heart can't relax to accept blood.

Outfitted For Life

“I’ve been dealing with issues with my heart since I was about 4 when I had cancer of my right kidney,” said Gonzalez.

In her battle against cancer she had one of her kidneys removed. And while helping to fight off the cancer, the chemo treatments she received weakened her heart.

She received a heart transplant when she was 12.

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However, her body slowly rejected the donor heart and six years after her first transplant she was in need of another.

The wait for a new heart left Gonzalez in a beleaguered medical state, which is where the medical teams at Children's Hospital stepped in.

Dr. David Morales and his team implanted the artificial heart device last November. Morales describes it as a mechanical substitute for Gonzalez's entire heart.

The medical team looks at it as a bridge to her transplant surgery.

“As the artificial heart accepts all of the blood from the veins and pushes it to the lungs and this one accepts all of the blood from the lungs, now that it has oxygen and pushes it to the body,” explained Dr. Morales.

When asked how it feels to wear the device, Gonzalez said, “It's beating like you're running a marathon all the time.”

Before deciding to use the device, Dr. Morales said his team had treated Gonzalez with everything they had but her body didn't respond and her condition continued to worsen. In addition to her failing heart, her lone kidney wasn't working, either.

"She was really drowning with fluid around her lungs although we tried many, many different techniques to get the fluid off there was no way to do that. And it became very clear to us that she probably wouldn't be with us much longer if we continued to wait," said Dr. Morales.

That's when they decided to equip Gonzalez with the backpack.

The gray, over-the-shoulder tote bag is with her everywhere she goes. She sleeps, eats and even showers with it.

“I went to go get labs and the security guard, he was looking at me, he didn't look very comfortable. Then we finally said, 'it's just my heart, don't be worried, it's not a bomb or anything,'” Gonzalez said.

While the security guard had nothing to worry about, Gonzalez's mother, Leslie Hudson, did. She completed a four-week training course to understand the ins and outs of the artificial heart, which has two alarms. One thing she learned during the training was her daughter must have access to an electrical outlet because the device only has a two-hour battery life.

“If they don't do it fast enough, you get lightheaded for a couple hours afterward,” Gonzalez said.

Living A New Normal

Dr. Morales says the Total Artificial Heart is amazing because it can restart the clock for patients waiting for a transplant.

“To wait for a year in the hospital for transplant you can only imagine you get a little cabin fever. From a psychological, physical, even a nutritional standpoint, the ability to be at home and be with your friends and family is a huge advantage as you wait for a transplant,” said Dr. Morales.

The device also has the potential to reverse kidney and liver failure, which it did in Gonzalez. Now she doesn't need a kidney transplant.

“It allows us to take care of young adults and adolescents that before had no hope. We had no way to support them,” said Dr. Morales.

But the backpack gave Gonzalez more than just hope. It also gave her a chance to get her life back.

“I figured I'd be in the hospital for a while afterwards, which I was, but I didn't think I’d be able to do what I’m doing now, which is going home and live a pretty normal life,” Gonzalez said.

After her transplant, she wants to go to college and become a lawyer.

Unfortunately, Gonzalez is back in the hospital right now, but her mom says her spirits are up. When she does get to go home she wants to plan a spa day for her and her mom.

The Freedom Company’s manufacturer is working on a smaller device that could be used in children as young as 9.


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