London: A heart is considered as the most important organ of the body such that even a small dysfunction in it may cause drastic changes in human organism. But, a woman in Britain lives without it inside her body rather carries it in her backpack.
Selwa Hussain, a 39-year-old mother of two underwent a a life-saving operation so radical that she now, in effect, carries her heart around in a rucksack.
Inside Selwa’s 15lb backpack are batteries, an electric motor and a pump that pushes air through tubes to power plastic chambers in her chest which push blood around her body.
Selwa’s astonishing story began when she started feeling terribly breathless. She dragged herself to the car and drove 200 yards down the road to see her family doctor in Clayhall, Essex who sent her to a local hospital where she was told she was suffering from severe heart failure.
Four days later, she was rushed by ambulance to the world famous Harefield Hospital where cardiologists battled to keep her alive.
She was too ill to stay alive on a support pump to help her failing heart – and too ill to be given a heart transplant. So with her life ebbing away, her husband Al agreed to his wife being given an artificial heart.
Selwa’s natural heart was removed by surgeons and replaced with an artificial implant and the specialist unit on her back. Selwa’s backpack contains two sets of batteries to power the motor and she has a second unit on standby in another backpack should the first fail.
90 seconds to connect to life
Al, or another carer, must be with her constantly and, if disaster strikes, they have 90 seconds to connect her to the back-up machine.
Selwa has had months to get used to being kept alive by her ‘heart in a bag’.
It drives blood round her body at 138 beats per minute in a rhythm which causes her chest to vibrate. There is a constant pumping and whirring noise from the motor in the backpack that she wears when she goes out or leaves on the floor when at home.
The two large plastic tubes connected to the backpack enter her body through her tummy button and travel up to her chest. They then fill two balloons inside her chest cavity with air, which work like the chambers of a real heart to push blood round her body.
Selwa, mother to a boy aged five and an 18-month-old girl, said: ‘I was so ill before and after the surgery that it has taken me all this time to get fit enough to come home.’
Experts who examined Selwa’s failed heart concluded that she had a condition called cardiomyopathy that can, in very rare cases, be triggered by pregnancy.
When Selwa first complained of chest pains. GPs mistakenly thought she was suffering from a digestive illness.
£86,000 artificial heart
The £86,000 artificial heart – made by an American company – was fitted during a six-hour operation performed by surgeon Diana Garcia Saez, and assisted by Harefield’s head of transplantation surgery, Mr Andre Simon. Harefield is the only UK centre using the device.
Selwa said: ‘Harefield have been absolutely magnificent. They came up with a solution that allowed me to stay alive to see the New Year in with my family. For that I am eternally grateful.’
Mr Simon said: ‘The operation went very well and Selwa’s recovery has been excellent.’ Only one other person in Britain has gone home with an artificial heart. It followed surgery at Papworth Hospital, Cambridgeshire, in 2011.
After a two-year wait, the 50-year-old man had a successful heart transplant and is still alive today. The hope is that Selwa will also get a transplant.