Editor's Note: Mr. Snelson went home from the hospital on November 8, 2002, making him the first person in the U.S. to go home with a Jarvik 2000 device. Click here for more information.
Mr. Snelson 13 days after the surgery with daughters Kathy Marsh (far left), Erika Cadori (right) and wife Barbara.
To Woodrow Snelson, heart failure was an underhanded enemy that caught him off guard.
"Heart failure and its symptoms are so sneaky that it pounces on you when you're not looking," Snelson said.
For Snelson, his heart failure was a very slow downward spiral. It got to the point where he couldn't get out of bed and couldn't function.
"I was barely able to breathe and my energy level was zero," he recalled.
But his life improved significantly once the 63-year-old Burtonsville man received an experimental Jarvik 2000 heart pump at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The pump is designed to act as a lifesaving bridge until Snelson can receive a heart transplant.
Although Woodrow Snelson is grateful for the opportunity he received when he was given the Jarvik 2000, his ordeal made him acutely aware of the need for heart donors to help patients suffering from severe heart failure.
"One of the issues that this whole thing brought to my attention is that there are not enough heart donors," said Snelson. "If I had my druthers I'd like to see a lot more people donating hearts."
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), 3,997 people are awaiting heart transplants nationwide, but just over 2,200 hearts were donated in 2001. According to the Transplant Resource Center of Maryland, locally, over 80 patients are awaiting heart transplants.
For more information on how to become a donor, contact the Transplant Resource Center of Maryland by calling 1-800-641-HERO or call their Donor Hotline at 1-800-923-1133.
Receiving the pump has changed his life. "For me this has opened up a whole new world," said Snelson, who is the first person on the East Coast to receive the Jarvik 2000 pump. "Compared to where I was when I came to the hospital, I feel about a thousand percent better." Since the operation, which took place on September 6, 2002, he said, "All the problems have gone away. I can breathe now and I can sleep at night. After the surgery, it was the first time I slept all night in nine months."
Bartley P. Griffith, M.D., chief of Cardiac Surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center and professor and head of the Division of Cardiac Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, sees Snelson as somewhat of a medical pioneer.
"Mr. Snelson represents one of those individuals who has suffered dearly from congestive heart failure but who has now had an opportunity to be, in essence, an astronaut, testing new mechanical devices that power blood through the circulation," said Griffith, who led the team that implanted the pump.
A team of Maryland Heart Center doctors considered standard cardiac surgical approaches along with valve replacements and an additional bypass (Snelson had undergone a heart bypass in 1989), but Snelson's heart muscle was too damaged.
The Jarvik 2000 device is a battery-powered flow pump about the size of a thumb. The pump fits directly inside the heart's left chamber and continuously pushes oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Compared to other heart assist devices, the Jarvik 2000 is much smaller, lighter and simpler, and it acts as a true booster pump for the heart.
Snelson received the experimental device as part of an FDA feasibility study that will include 50 patients around the United States. If he continues to do well, Snelson may be the first person in the country to go home from the hospital with the Jarvik 2000.
In the future, doctors hope that the pump, right now only FDA approved as
a bridge to transplant device, will be able to serve as a permanent replacement
for a damaged heart. Snelson shares that wish. "Personally I'd like to
see it (the Jarvik) become an alternative to a transplanted heart," he
Ultimately, Griffith and others hope that the artificial heart will become as common as a pacemaker, something that's a routine therapy that reaches a large number of people.
Prior to receiving the Jarvik 2000, Snelson had a long and difficult history of heart problems, beginning in 1989 when he had a major heart attack and underwent coronary artery bypass surgery. Then in 1994 he had a mild stroke, which caused him to be put on blood thinners.
In January 1996 he had a ventricular tachycardia attack while driving. This caused him to pass out and crash his car into a light pole. Fortunately, Snelson survived the accident, but his cardiologist then implanted a defibrillator, which still remains attached to his heart inside the chest cavity. Although doctors had to turn it off when the Jarvik 2000 was implanted, the defibrillator has been reactivated.
After that incident, Snelson says he had no major problems until the spring of 2001, when his health issues began again. He had shortness of breath, digestive problems, and he couldn't sleep. "I couldn't work anymore. I had no appetite, no energy, and I couldn't climb stairs," Snelson said.
His condition forced him to retire from his work as a computer consultant for a private company. Prior to that, Snelson retired in 1998 from his position as a computer consultant for the Department of Defense.
On August 21, 2002, the turning point came for Snelson. "I had gone to the grocery store in the middle of one of our heat waves and basically just melted on the curb right there. I ended up sitting on the curb holding onto a truck. The people at the store came to my assistance and called 911."
Snelson was taken to the hospital and at that point, his cardiologist informed him that medicine would no longer help him -- he would need a heart transplant. By August 27, he was admitted to the Medical Center.
Said his wife, Barbara Snelson: "When they saw the severity of Woody's condition, they immediately called in Dr. Griffith and a whole host of people and put him right in ICU and we started down this path with the Jarvik 2000."
Once stabilized, doctors started discussing Snelson's options. He would need a heart transplant, but would he be willing to have a heart pump as a bridge to transplantation? Snelson was willing, but under one condition: he wanted to go home as soon as possible.
After he expressed those wishes, the doctors told him that they had an experimental device and asked Snelson if he would be interested in entering a program related to using the device. Once the tests indicated he would be a good candidate, Snelson decided to move forward.
"I was eager to get on with it. I wasn't worried about the experimental part of it because from my perspective it really wasn't any different than the other devices except that it was smaller," he said.
Now that the pump is in, can he feel it? "No, and I can't even hear it," said Snelson.
After the surgery, Barbara Snelson also noticed a dramatic difference in her husband's condition. "We've seen great improvement in Woody," Barbara said. "Now we have new hope. He's got a new life."
And she's grateful for the opportunity they've been offered.
"We were just at the right place at the right time and we had this opportunity that he could take advantage of. For him to even be able to come home, it's a miracle."
The device allows Snelson a great deal of mobility. The pump has a speed-control device on a small, external battery pack that Snelson can use to adjust the flow of blood through his body. "Now he's just on a small set of batteries and he can go wherever, do whatever he wants," said Barbara.
Snelson says the physicians who took care of him "are not the run of the mill, ordinary doctors. They've been there on a daily basis to check on me. Dr. Griffith has made it a point to come in every day." In fact even the inventor of the Jarvik 2000, Dr. Robert Jarvik came to Maryland to assist during the surgery.
"He received excellent care. The doctors have been very attentive and informative. We couldn't have asked for better information or care then what we've gotten here," said Barbara Snelson.
Doctors here are hopeful that once Snelson returns home, he will become involved in his favorite activities. "Mr. Snelson can play tennis, golf, go back to work and do whatever he wants," said Griffith.
For Snelson, though, one of his top priorities is finishing his retirement home that he's building in Charles Town, West Virginia, on the Shenandoah River. He also wants to enjoy his other hobbies, including spending time with his family, traveling, and eating.
Speaking of eating, what would he like to eat most when he goes home?
"I would love to have a foot-long chili dog," said Snelson with a smile.
Family obligations are also important to him. "I have two grown daughters and two teenage stepdaughters. So I want to focus on getting my two stepdaughters through school and educated," said Snelson. "Beyond that, I'm looking forward to sitting on porch with my feet kicked up, watching the squirrels."
One of Snelson's daughters, Erika Cadori, was glad the Jarvik was available for her father. "We're really excited that this technology was there that enables him to survive the gap between now and when the heart transplant happens," said Cadori. "We've been crossing our fingers and hoping that he'd make it to heart transplant. Now we're pretty comfortable that he'll make it."