• Cardiology Patient Stories

    Date Night

'Date Night' Takes on New Meaning for Heart Patient at Mayo Clinic in Arizona

It would be hard to ignore the elephant in the room.

This "elephant" happens to be the 400-pound artificial heart machine that is keeping alive a very special patient at Mayo Clinic in Arizona -- a 41-year-old husband and father of three whose heart was so damaged it had to be totally removed. The heart machine, called the Total Artificial Heart, then took over. It replaces the human heart and pumps up to 9.5 liters of blood per minute to save the lives of patients experiencing end-stage heart failure.

The human heart may have been replaced, but not the human spirit.

Mayo patient Charles Okeke is setting records. He has been on the Total Artificial Heart for nearly 250 days and courageously goes about life as best he can while being an inpatient at Mayo Clinic Hospital all that time. His is a complex case in that his body produces antibodies that make it challenging to be a good match for a donor heart. Still, he works out at physical therapy, using the treadmill, stationary bike and lifting weights. He is in remarkably good shape. He is as mobile as he can be, tethered to the machine and often can be seen having lunch or dinner in the hospital cafeteria, with staff at his side.

It is no small task to move the machine from point A to point B.

The "room" this time was the back cafeteria at the hospital, a place that on a recent Saturday evening was transformed into a serene respite from the 24-hour daily reality faced by Charles, who relies on the machine to function and to keep in close touch with his wife of 11 years, Natalie, and their three children, Cecilia, 8; Jacqueline, 5 and Dominick, 3.

Natalie and Charles dressed for the special occasion; Natalie in a lovely white sun dress and Charles in a blue and white tropical shirt.

That night was set aside to be a "dinner and a movie" date night for Charles and Natalie, the brainchild of Francisco Arabia, M.D., Mayo’s Chair, Division of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery. Many others were delighted to participate in making the night a special one for the couple, from the hors d'oeuvres served on the cafeteria patio to the flowers on the beautifully set table, to "candles," to, yes, even a beverage of their choice. The Food and Nutrition Services staff went all out and their pride was obvious as they prepared and served the elegant meal for the couple.

The special menu? Lobster quesadillas with cilantro cream and a side of tropical fruit avocado salsa. Sonoma coast salad with pears, walnuts, cranberries and gorgonzola cheese, topped with champagne vinaigrette. Pork tenderloin medallions with wild mushroom sauce. Three-cheese potato gratin and a side of roasted baby carrots and asparagus. And, specially requested by Charles,
7-up pound cake for dessert, festooned with mixed berries.

Not exactly your standard-issue cafeteria food.

At last, Charles and Natalie had some welcomed privacy. They laughed, talked and shared stories. After dinner, they took their place on a comfortable leather sofa in the same room to watch the movie. They chose "Yes Man," starring Jim Carrey. In front of them was a bowl of popcorn and all the requisite movie theater treats -- boxes of Dots, Junior Mints and the like.

Charles was asked, point-blank, what it was like to be a patient for that many days at Mayo Clinic Hospital -- was it like a prison sentence? His response was candid. He described it as "like being in prison, but with very nice guards."

Charles remains introspective about his challenges, noting he takes his situation day by day, "just enjoying the people around me -- just enjoying the ride." Should that day come in the near future when a portable version of the Total Artificial Heart becomes available, it may well be possible for him to go home, something Natalie looks forward to. "I want my husband to be around my kids, raising them. We want some laughing moments," she says.

Lynn Closway is a communications consultant in Public Affairs, Mayo Clinic Arizona

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