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Heart Transplant Patient Identified As Resident of Franklin, Kentucky

By Glenda Cooper
THE WASHINGTON POST -- Robert L. Tools says the biggest thing he has to get used to is not having a heartbeat. But the small whirring sound he hears inside his chest instead tells him that -- against all odds -- he is still alive.

The Franklin, Ky., man came forward Tuesday to reveal himself as the first recipient of the first fully contained artificial heart, ending the mystery about his identity that has surrounded the landmark procedure for almost two months.

The 59-year-old retired phone company employee said at a news conference in Louisville, Ky., that he had no hesitation in being the first to receive the experimental device because he was so close to death. “I knew I had no more chances,” he said.

Fifty one days earlier, Tools’ diseased heart had been removed by doctors at the Jewish Hospital in Louisville and replaced with a yo-yo shaped plastic-and-titanium pump the size of a small grapefruit. The device is powered by an external battery pack that transmits electricity through the skin to electrodes in the patient’s abdomen.

When he entered the hospital, Tools, a diabetic with a history of heart problems, had been deemed too ill to receive a heart transplant. One of his surgeons, Robert Dowling of the University of Louisville, had reported he was too weak even to lift his head and had little chance of surviving 30 days.

But he’s made such steady progress since the operation that his doctors now say he could eventually return home to a semblance of normal life, and perhaps even get strong enough to become eligible for a heart transplant.

Tuesday, a gaunt-looking Tools received a round of applause as he walked slowly, but with his head held high, into his doctor’s office to take questions from reporters.

It had been his decision to hold the news conference “to take away the mystery” surrounding the case since his July operation. His identity was so closely guarded that not even his closest neighbors knew he was the patient.

Wearing a blue shirt and red tie, Tools recalled his thoughts on the medical procedure. “There was no decision to make really,” said Tools, who is married and has two adult children. “I had a choice. I could sit at home and die or come here and take a chance. I decided to come here and take a chance.”

Tools kept his right hand over his throat to cover a hole left from a tracheotomy tube; his doctor said that helped him project his voice, which at times was still barely louder than a whisper.

Asked what his first thoughts were after surgery, Tools smiled. “I was happy to wake up and see people, to know I was alive,” he said. “And to know I got that far.”

Tools said he found the artificial heart a little heavy. “I’m still getting used to it,” he said.