A 24-year-old Ypsilanti man has become the first person in Michigan to walk out of a hospital with a totally artificial heart.
The SynCardia Total Artificial Heart is connected to two tubes in Stan Larkin's chest. They snake out from under his ribs and connect to a 13-pound compressor carried in his backpack.
It's an apparatus that provides Larkin a sort of sound track of his life right now — an ever-present, rhythmic gallop as pulses of precisely calibrated, compressed oxygen are forced into the pneumatic ticker.
"I guess I tuned it out after about three days," he said, chuckling.
Larkin was 16 when he blacked out playing basketball. He was diagnosed witharrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, or ARVD, which causes irregular heart rhythm.
Unlike many heart failures, ARVD affects both sides of the heart, making other, more common heart-supporting devices inadequate to keep him alive, said Dr. Jonathan Haft, a University of Michigan cardiac surgeon.
It's also one of several causes of sudden cardiac death among young adults. And as it turns out, his younger brother, Dominique Larkin, has the same condition.
For years, Stan Larkin had an implantable defibrillator that delivered electrical impulses when necessary to keep his heart going.
"One day it went off 26 times," Larkin said. About the same time, brother Dominique — 15 — also received a defibrillator.
Over time, both hearts continued to weaken. Stan Larkin could barely walk to the car, he said.
Time was running out.
In October, Stan Larkin was admitted to U-M where doctors told him, he said, "My heart was operating at about 15%." Dominique Larkin was there, too — awaiting a transplant.
With the older brother's heart failing rapidly, doctors told him there were few options left. In November, they implanted the Total Artificial Heart, connecting two tubes at that time to a 418-pound compressor known as Big Blue.
It's not the first time the compressor has been used. And yes, it's blue.
"About the size of a dresser," Larkin added.
More than a half-dozen patients have previously spent time on Big Blue as they wait for transplants, Haft said. But that means being confined to the big, clunky machine.
But the technology behind Big Blue can be packaged into smaller space. In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Freedom Driver — a device that renegotiated Big Blue into something that fits into a backpack.
On Dec. 23, Larkin walked out of U-M to spend Christmas with his family, including his three toddlers, he said.
He has made trips to the mall. He plans to attend church in the coming days. And he visits his brother, who now has a Total Artificial Heart and — if all goes well — also will walk out of the hospital soon with a portable machine.
The younger brother said he's ready. There's only so much Family Feud and General Hospital he can watch, he said.
"This isn't easy at all — being away from your family and your life and everything so close but it seems so far way," Dominique Larkin said. But, "I'll sacrifice a few months for the long haul."