A 13-year-old girl has successfully made it through surgery to become the first child in Britain and the youngest person in Europe to receive a total artificial heart transplant.
"I feel, well, like my normal self, but not quite my normal self, not after what I've been through," Chloe Narbonne told The Guardian.
While others have benefited from a medical device that functions outside the body called the "Berlin heart," Chloe underwent nine hours of complex surgery to have an artificial heart implanted into her chest. Doctor André Simon, the director of heart and lung transplantation at the Royal Brompton and Harefield specialist hospitals, and 30 National Health Service (NHS) staff were behind the success of what doctors are calling an "extremely risky" operation.
To add to her list of history-making firsts, Chloe was the first person in the world to be transferred between hospitals with an open chest and while breathing with the aid of an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine.
Simon has performed 13 other artificial heart transplants — the only ones ever in London hospitals — and was the first to rebuild a heart's atrium, or upper chamber, a necessary step in Chloe's surgery. It had been removed after a failed transplant only days earlier and its reconstruction, in combination with the artificial heart, ensured that Chloe stayed alive long enough to receive a new, human heart weeks later.
Chloe was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy at 4 weeks old, which culminated in heart failure when she was 11 years old. While awaiting a heart donor, she had a stroke and nearly died when her initial transplant was a failure. The artificial heart was seen by her family and doctors as her final chance.
"How they saved Chloe should be recognized for what it is — a miracle," said Fabienne Narbonne, Chloe's mother. "Without the artificial heart she would be dead. It kept her alive for those crucial few weeks. By the time she got it she had run out of options."
Only about 1,600 individuals worldwide have received an artificial heart. According to The Guardian, Chloe is the third youngest, after a nine-year-old and 11-year-old who underwent the operation in the United States. Simon said he hopes that his and Chloe's success will help inspire other doctors to take the device into consideration for children struggling with heart defects.
"I guess the artificial heart was my lifesaver; it's what kept me alive until I got another heart," said Chloe. "What I've been through is life-changing."
Chloe's story is hopeful and heartwarming (no pun intended), but her family refuses to just remain passively happy. They acutely recognize the difficulties many others face when seeking organ transplants in Britain and are fierce advocates for changing existing law to better help patients in need.
In response to the severe shortage of viable organs available for transplant, Wales adjusted their system of organ donation so that it was opt-out rather than opt-in; this way, people have to specifically refuse consent to give up their organs upon death. The hope is that it will increase the amount of healthy organs available so that fewer will die while waiting for a transplant. The Narbonnes want this to become law throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.
"We owe eternal thanks to the donors and their families, without whom none of this would be possible," said Fabienne. "As without donors there is not point in being on a waiting list, however long you have to wait."
Banner and thumbnail credit: Flickr user Rosmarie Voegtli