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Artificial heart recipient heading home

"I feel like I'm pretty back to normal," artificial heart recipient Tom Christerson said Tuesday at a press conference.  

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (CNN) -- Acknowledging his place in medical history, Tom Christerson said Tuesday he is eager to return home and resume his life with a new, artificial heart. He said he felt wonderful to be on his way.

More than seven months ago, Christerson, 70, became the second patient to receive an AbioCor artificial heart, and he is the first person to be sent home long-term from a medical facility with an implantable, replaceable heart, said Linda McGinity Jackson, spokeswoman for Jewish Hospital in Louisville.

As he prepared to leave The Inn at Jewish Hospital on Tuesday, Christerson told reporters he yearns for normal activities -- fishing, boating, spending time with friends, going to the barber shop and playing cards. Christerson had said earlier he hopes to live to be 110.

"I know they're excited," Jackson said of Christerson and his family. "They wanted to just get up and go this morning."

Christerson's wife, Speedy, and their son, Ken, came to the hospital Tuesday to take him to his Central City home in western Kentucky.

Tom Christerson, the second patient ever to receive an AbioCor artificial heart, made medical history as he returned home to a hero's welcome. WHAS' Tracy West reports (April 17)

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See how the AbioCor artificial heart device  works

"I want to get home and just walk around my house," Christerson said.

Tearful and slightly out of breath, Christerson said he was never afraid.

"I never lost hope. I had some good doctors," he said of his medical ordeal.

Robert Tools, the first patient enrolled in the AbioCor Implantable Replacement Heart clinical trial, died of organ failure at Jewish Hospital in November, five months after receiving the experimental device.

Seven heart patients have received the AbioCor device.

The AbioCor device is intended to serve as an alternative to heart transplantation.  

Christerson, the longest living of these patients, was discharged March 20 from the hospital, where he was recovering from his September implant surgery. Since his discharge, he has been living at The Inn at Jewish Hospital.

Christerson's surgeon, Dr. Rob Dowling, calls his patient's release "historic."

"I think it proves we can do it," Dowling said.

Since the implant, the plastic and titanium device has beaten more than 37 million times, functioning flawlessly, doctors said. Christerson suffered from heart failure before the surgery.

Entering uncharted territory

The Christersons have been married 54 years and have lived in Central City for 40 of those. The couple owned a tire store, and Christerson retired when he was 55.

Their son, Ken, runs the business, and daughter Patty and grandchildren will help care for Christerson.

Granddaughter Kelly Binkley said she is glad her grandfather's surgery was a success and looks forward to telling her grandchildren his tale.

Nurse Elizabeth Blank recalls how overwhelming it was when Christerson first became a patient because doctors were entering uncharted waters and had no protocol to follow.

After Christerson's surgery, Blank said she and other nurses set small goals for the patient such as walking around the nurses' station three times.

Extensive preparations have been made to ensure that people in Christerson's hometown know what to do if his heart fails.

The Kentucky Utilities Co. has placed Christerson on its emergency list in case of a power outage; doctors, nurses and emergency medical personnel have been trained to handle potential medical problems. The Christersons' van was outfitted with an alternate power for backup.

An emergency plan has been developed to transport Christerson quickly to the hospital in case of trouble. An AbioCor artificial heart already has been flown in an emergency helicopter to make sure nothing would cause the device to malfunction as the aircraft transported Christerson.

The device's makers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had to approve every detail since Christerson is participating in a clinical trial.

Andrea Brown, a clinical research coordinator for Jewish Hospital, said she and others are excited that Christerson is finally returning home.

"He happens to have a device in his chest, but he still has a lot of heart," Brown said.

-- Producer Debra Goldschmidt contributed to this report.




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