Suffering from heart failure, Woodrow Snelson is on a waiting list for a heart transplant at University of Maryland Medical Center.
But next week, the 63-year- old father of two from Burtonsville may become the first patient in the United States who is awaiting a transplant to go home with a thumb-sized experimental pump pushing blood through his heart.
Two weeks ago, Snelson became the 30th patient nationwide and the first on the East Coast to be given the Jarvik 2000 pump, a device implanted in his heart's left chamber during an eight-hour surgical procedure.
"For me, this has opened up a whole new world," Snelson, a retired Defense Department computer consultant, said at a news briefing yesterday at the medical center. Over the past year, he said, his heart condition robbed him of sleep and energy and stalled his plans to build a retirement home.
"I can breathe now. I can sleep at night," he said.
Dr. Bartley P. Griffith, chief of cardiac surgery at the hospital and leader of the team that implanted the device, said the battery-powered pump provides a regular flow of blood that Snelson can adjust by pushing a button on a control box about the size of a pocket camera.
"If he's at rest, he keeps it at a lower level," Griffith said. "If he's feeling shortness of breath, he turns it up."
The surgeon said that the pumps will be implanted in 50 patients nationwide as part of a FDA trial to determine if the pumps are suitable for regular use. All of the patients who received the pumps are suffering from heart failure and are awaiting heart transplants, he said.
Griffith and other doctors say they hope the pumps will be used both as "a bridge" by patients awaiting heart transplants, like Snelson, and by those who could use them for the rest of their lives. They say patients could live with the implants for up to a decade and that they may help address a national shortage of hearts available for transplants.
"We hope some patients will opt for this as a permanent solution," Griffith said.
There are 4,060 people awaiting heart transplants nationwide -- about double the number of hearts that were donated last year, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a Virginia based nonprofit group that keeps track of transplant patients and the availability of organs.
Dr. Robert K. Jarvik, the New York-based surgeon who invented the pump and is best known for inventing the artificial heart, said the FDA trials are expected to run for at least another year.
The pumps have been implanted in two patients at the Cleveland Clinic and in 27 patients the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, Jarvik said. Doctors in Europe implanted another 15 pumps in patients.
Jarvik, who observed Snelson's operation, said he expects the pump to be approved in the United States in three to four years and in Europe in about a year.
The pump contains a blade that spins like a fan, drawing oxygen-enriched blood from the lungs into the heart and pushing it on into the body.
He said the device is an improvement over the Jarvik 7, a pump about the size of two large fists that he invented in 1982. The smaller size enables more patients -- those with smaller chest cavities -- to use it, Jarvik said.
The pump is designed to run at a slow speed, so that the patient's heart also will continue to pump blood and possibly grow stronger, its inventor said.
"We are deliberately running it at a slow enough speed, so the natural heart shares the work with the pump and the natural heart does beat and does create a measurable pulse," Jarvik said.
Five of the European patients have lived at least a year, Jarvik said. The longest surviving patient, from Birmingham, England, has lived 27 months, walks three to five miles a day and plans to tour the United States next month to promote the pump and a book he has written about his experience.
Ten European patients have been allowed to go home and have returned to work, Jarvik said.
Once back home, Snelson said his first meal, after putting up with hospital food, may be "a good chili dog."
"What I'm looking forward to is sitting on my porch with my feet kicked up, watching the squirrels," he said.