A 14-year old American girl was kept alive for 118 days without a heart while waiting for a second heart transplant at a hospital in Florida; surgeons fitted a custom-made artificial heart after removing the first transplanted heart in July this year.

D’Zhana Simmons, who lives in South Carolina, had her first heart transplant on 2nd July at Holtz Children’s Hospital at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. But the new heart did not function correctly and was removed two days later, which is when she was implanted with an artificial heart made of two heart pumps to keep her alive until a second donor heart could be found.

A statement from the hospital said they believe D’Zhana is the first child to survive without a heart in this way, with an artificial device keeping the circulation going.

According to a Reuter’s report, D’Zhana’s doctors told the press that they knew of another case where an adult in Germany was kept alive for nine months on an artificial heart.

Director of cardiac surgery at UM/Holtz, Dr Marco Ricci told reporters that D’Zhana:

“Essentially lived for 118 days without a heart, with her circulation supported only by the two blood pumps.”

D’Zhanam who was barely able to walk around without assistance during those four months, told reporters that she found the experience “scary” and that she never knew when the artificial heart would malfunction. She said felt like a “fake person”, living without a heart.

D’Zhana was diagnosed earlier this year with dilated cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart is weak and can’t pump blood effectively. Following transfers to several hospitals in South Carolina, she was flown to Holtz, one of the largest children’s hospitals in the southeast United States that specializes in organ transplants and cardiology; the hospital is part of the Miami Transplant Institute.

D’Zhana’s mother, Twolla Anderson, said she told her daughter:

“God has a special heart for you and he will deliver it to you when he is ready.”

Living with an artificial heart was not without risk. For the best part of four months D’Zhana’s body was very weak and struggled to fight off infection. In fact she suffered kidney failure and the day after she received a second heart on 29th October, she also received a new kidney on the 30th.

Ricci said the 254-bed hospital was unique in that it has many different specialists and comprehensive care facilities under one roof.

“We have physicians from virtually every specialty available at all times to care for our patients,” said Ricci.

A cardiothoracic surgeon who works with the kind of pumps that were used in this case said that what Ricci and his team managed to do was a “big deal”.

Dr Peter Wearden, who is based at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, told the Associated Press that it was “pretty amazing” that D’Zhana lived for more than 100 days without a heart in her body.

The heart pumps, known as ventricular assist devices, are normally used when the patient’s heart is still in the body, to help it pump blood more efficiently while waiting for a new heart. But in D’Zhana’s case the first donor heart was in danger of rupturing and had to be removed.

D’Zhana was released from hospital on Wednesday. According to Ricci her prognosis is good.

Her mother told reporters:

“I truly believe it’s a miracle.”

D’Zhana, who became very emotional during the press conference, said she was glad she could walk without the machine (the two pumps were supported by a large photocopier sized machine that had to be wheeled around with her during those 4 months). She said she was looking forward to being back with her family and being able to go outdoors.

Her doctors said she will have to take drugs for the rest of her life to stop her immune system rejecting the donated heart, and there’s a 50 per cent chance she will need another transplant within the next 15 years, according to the Associated Press report.

Sources: Jackson Health System, Reuters, Associated Press.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD