Larry Faucette looks gaunt, slightly out of breath, yet happy and invigorated as he doggedly pushes the pedals forward on a stationary recumbent bicycle in a hospital room, while machines attached to the numerous tubes affixed to his body whir and beep behind him.
“Did you feel that in your legs at all?” asks Chris Wells, associate professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation science at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who sits facing him and guides his feet.
“Oh yeah,” says the bespectacled Faucette, his eyes widening as he smiles and tries to catch his breath.
One month ago today, 58-year-old Faucette, a 20-year Navy veteran and father of two who lives in Frederick, became the second human ever to receive a pig heart in place of his own, which had all but ceased to function. Due to a circulation disorder and risk for internal bleeding, Faucette did not qualify for a traditional heart transplant, according to University of Maryland Medicine.
The first person to receive a pig heart transplant, 57-year-old David Bennett Sr., survived just two months before the transplanted heart failed in March last year, for reasons that aren’t completely clear, although signs of a pig virus later were found inside the organ. Lessons from that first experiment led to changes before this second try, including better virus testing.
“The physicians taking care of him [Faucette] believe his heart function is excellent,” with no evidence of infection or rejection of the organ, said Dr. Bartley Griffith, director of the cardiac transplant program at the University of Maryland Medical Center, in a video University of Maryland Medicine released on Friday.
“Larry is a remarkable patient,” said Griffith. “He never expected, frankly, to be able to stand ever again, and I suspect that what he meant was he wouldn’t survive long enough to get standing. He’s joyful. He’s embracing his life, however extended it might be, and we’re hoping for many, many more days, but he’s thankful for those that he’s had.”
A hospital spokesperson said Faucette has been able to stand and is working on walking.
Faucette nearly died in the days leading up to his transplant, Griffith said. His heart stopped twice and had to be shocked back into rhythm with an automatic defibrillator.
He is at a “pivot point,” where the medical team is working to “get the guardrails off” and “get him up and moving,” said Griffith, so Faucette can gradually resume normal functioning.
Attempts at animal-to-human organ transplants — called xenotransplants — have failed for decades, as people’s immune systems immediately destroyed the foreign tissue. Now scientists are trying again using pigs genetically modified to make their organs more humanlike.
Many scientists hope xenotransplants one day could compensate for the huge shortage of human organ donations. More than 100,000 people are on the nation’s list for a transplant, most awaiting kidneys, and thousands will die waiting.
A handful of scientific teams have tested pig kidneys and hearts in monkeys and in donated human bodies, hoping to learn enough for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow formal xenotransplant studies.
Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, director of the xenotransplantation program University of Maryland Medical Center, said they are weaning Faucette off medications to support his heart function, and physical therapists are helping him regain his strength as he prepares to transition back home. Faucette’s wife and sister have been a great source of support for him, Mohiuddin said.
Laying in his hospital bed, Faucette looks over the results of a biopsy of his new heart, which appears as a large red stain across a page.
“What are you seeing, Larry?” asks a male voice in the background of the video released Friday.
“I see a perfectly normal heart,” he answers. “And that’s exactly what we hoped to see.”
Associated Press medical writer Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.