The Man Who Had A Portable Heart

by Marly Fausz

As Thanksgiving approaches, many people are making their lists of things they are grateful for this time of year. Lennie Nugent is thankful that this past year he was able to eat his wife’s cooking and sleep in their bed, which may seem out of place for a man that had no heart.

That’s right. After six years of suffering from heart disease, Ettrick-Matoaca native Lennie Nugent and his wife Lynn experienced a medical phenomenon over the past year and wrote about it in their newly released book: A New Heart. Nugent will discuss how he defied nature with a medical device that served as his heart for 10 months before receiving a transplant last December,  at his book signing at Rainbow Parable Christian Bookstore in Colonial Heights, Saturday November 23 from 11 a.m-1 p.m. and 2 p.m. - 4 p.m.

The six years included a painful list of health issues such as cardiac arrest, congestive heart failure, several heart attacks, heart calcification, leaking aorta, ventricular tachycardia, and pneumonia which resulted in hundreds of IVs, 30 heart catheterizations, 12 heart biopsies, nine CT scans, sternum broken three times, two pacemakers/defibrillators, chest tubes, and eventually his heart was removed and replaced with an artificial heart.

Through four-and-a-half years of trials and tribulations, Dr. David Gilligan and Chippenham Hospital were responsible for Nugent’s care until his heart deteriorated to the point doctors recommended he see transplant doctors at VCU’s Pauley Heart Hospital for his heart to be removed. Typically, when the human heart is replaced by a temporary machine in waiting for a transplant, patients are hospital bound to a pump machine that weighs 450 pounds, about the size of a small desk. This was Nugent’s fate for the first two months living without a heart.

Two years ago the SynCardia Systems, Inc. developed a wearable, portable unit that weighed 13.5-pounds, is powered by two lithium batteries called the Freedom Driver that provides precisely calibrated pulses of air to operate the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart. Although not FDA approved, Nugent qualified for a test group being conducted in the U.S. At the time, only about 50 people had been on one and to date more than 1,200 patients have experienced the device.

“Many think it is an LVAD, the device Vice President Cheney had, but with an LVAD your heart is not removed,” said Nugent when describing his Freedom driver. “That device helps your heart, but my heart was removed.”

There was no deadline for the amount of time Nugent would function with the Freedom Driver. This device is not intended to assist those without a heart for the rest of their lives but to serve as a bridge to a transplant.  He recalls some people in the test group had issues with the Freedom Driver and had to return to the hospital to be placed back on the big machine.  

“My Freedom Drivers, I had five different ones, worked very well and allowed me to operate at about 80 percent at home and I was able to go to church, movies, out to eat, work, and even went to football games,” said Nugent.

It all seems like such ease, but there was a lot of work that had to go into the eight months of “freedom” that came with this temporary portable heart. Both he and his wife, Lynn, had to be trained on the operation of the machine in case any problems arose. His wife’s commitment included staying by his side 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the entire eight months.

The training came in handy as the Nugents had to use their back-up machine on four occasions. He would be disconnected from one lifeline and reconnected to another. The Nugents are still impressed that they could handle such a procedure with such inexperience. It also made for a great conversation starter.

“People would say ‘Hey mister what’s in the bag?’  and I’d reply ‘My heart,’  and it never failed to hear back ‘Yeah, right.  What’s in the bag?’” said Nugent.   

Because of the portability, Nugent was able to work out which kept him in decent shape, considering his circumstances, for the time of his transplant. This is a factor that helps with transplant recovery as most people undergoing a heart transplant tend to be very ill and weak.

This allowed the Nugents to live their lives to its fullest and not wake up each day wondering if today would be the day he would get a heart. They both contest that they took pleasure in every moment and lived their lives as normally as they could. After all, they knew a call would eventually come and when it did on December 2, 2012, they were not anxious or overwhelmed and felt it was just another step in the journey to recovery.

Organ donation is an anonymous process, but the Nugents do know his heart came from a big, strong, young man from South Carolina. Life Net, the clearing house for matching up available organs and possible recipients, does however coordinate letters from recipients to donor families. Nugent wrote to thank his donor family for their very generous gift at such a difficult time.

“Every time someone told me they were praying for me, before and after the transplant, I would ask them to pray for the donor family also.” said Nugent. “In the beginning I felt guilty because someone would have to die for me to live, then one of my many great nurses asked me what would happen to the donor if I did not take his heart.  I said he would be dead anyway.  With that, my guilt disappeared.”

Almost a year later, Lennie Nugent is still living a healthy life serving as the Area Director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He and his wife Lynn currently reside in Colonial Heights.


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