Geary resident Troy Golden speaks with his family Tuesday during a press conference to announce that he is the first person in the region to have his heart replaced with the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart at INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City. Golden needed the operation because he had a failing heart due to Marfan syndrome. 

Troy Golden is followed everywhere he goes by a 418-pound cart that releases a rhythmic whooshing noisy. After having his ailing heart completely removed earlier this month, the device is the only thing keeping the Geary resident alive.

Golden became the first person in the region to receive a Total Artificial Heart. The large external unit, which is nicknamed “Big Blue,” replaces both failing heart ventricles along with the four native heart valves to provide circulatory support. It is designed to sustain Golden, 45, as he waits for a donor heart.

Surgeons at INTEGRIS Health performed the procedure and joined just 12 other facilities in the country that also have done so. Dr. Doug Horstmanshof, co-director of Advanced Cardiac Care Program at the hospital, said the new technique provides new hope to severely ill patients who are waiting on the selective donor list.

“With only 2,000 (heart) transplants available, and when someone is getting as sick as (Golden) is, this technology can provide them the time until a donor heart is located,” he said.

State working on being a leader in field

The transplant achievement is just one of many in the state during the past several decades. Dr. Nazhi Zuhdi performed the state’s first heart transplant in 1985. And later in the 1980s, Laverne resident Terri Lenz was one of the earliest patients to successfully receive a heart-lung transplant.

Dr. James Long, co-director of the Advanced Cardiac Care at INTEGRIS, said he owes the advancements to years of work by medical professional all over the country.

“Some 50 years of endeavor have gone into getting this field to the state where it is at today,” he said. “And that is humbling because we are just beginning to successfully replace that which the Creator put in us.”

University of Oklahoma Medicine also announced in April that it is creating its own transplant center. The program features the adult kidney transplant services, the state’s only pediatric kidney transplant program, and liver and pancreas transplant programs.

Long said people such as Golden, who are willing to take part in new procedures, also should be credited. But he said medical professionals should not rush new technology.

“This is a field that has been very difficult and very challenging,” he said. “This is not like a quick win. This is the most sophisticated, complex medical technology that has ever been created, and it has taken a long way to get there.”

Golden’s story

Golden was born with a genetic condition called Marfan syndrome, which affects his heart and blood vessels. His health began to seriously deteriorate about four years ago, affecting his family life and work as a minister at New Life Assembly of God church in Geary.

“Later that year I got to the point that I wasn’t able to function,” he said. “And since that time I have not recovered to the point that I was before.”

Doctors recently placed Gordon on the waiting list for a heart donor. Despite some close calls, no donor organ came as his health worsened to critical levels.

Horstmanshof said he then talked Golden through his options: Continue waiting for a donor or try a new procedure that would temporarily replace his heart with a machine. Golden said making his decisions was fairly simple.

“The reason you see me here today on this device is because I’m not done doing what the Lord has planned for me to do, and I’m not done doing the things I want to do with my family,” he said.  “I think I needed this because I can tell where I was headed pretty soon …  and to me this is a device that can sustain me until I get the heart I need.”

Golden acknowledges living without a heart in his chest is a surreal experience. But he said he already feels healthier since the six-hour surgery that gave him new hope.

Looking for more firsts

Golden is not done testing the boundaries of medical advancements. Hospital officials hope to replace the 418-pound external unit that is connected to Golden with a 13.5-pound machine that fits in a backpack.

Golden is confined to the hospital with the larger unit. But with the smaller device, called the Freedom Driver, he could return home or even to work.

The Freedom Driver runs the artificial heart for several hours on two onboard lithium-ion batteries and can be charged through a home or vehicle power outlet. The Mayo Clinic is the only facility in the country that has used the Freedom Driver.

Geary is now back on the waiting list for a new heart, but if none arrives within the next few weeks he said he is ready to take the Freedom Driver home.

“Number one (I’m looking forward) to go back to preaching,” he said. “Number two, going fishing or maybe golf.”

Trevor Brown covers Oklahoma issues for CNHI. He can be reached at tbrown@cnhi.com.

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