Heart surgery: Operating outside the body

March 3, 2010 10:54:56 AM PST
The heart is a vital organ, beating 100,000 times a day and pumping 2,000 gallons of blood through our bodies. When something slows that pump, results can be fatal. Surgeons are now operating on hearts outside of the body and treating people who had no other options. Racecar driver David Jenkins likes living on the edge, but a series of medical tests gave this daredevil an adrenaline rush he never expected: a tumor the size of a lemon on the back of his heart.

"It all happened so fast," Jenkins said.

"Inevitably, it would have caused death for the man because of the size of it, and it basically impairs blood flow," said Dr. David Peterseim, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Roper St. Francis in Charleston, S.C.

Dr. Peterseim wanted to try something drastic -- a heart surgery he'd never performed before.

"It was on the back wall of his heart -- the left atrium -- and this is a very bad place to have a tumor," Dr. Peterseim said.

In an eight-hour surgery, Dr. Peterseim opened Jenkins' chest and removed his heart from his body, leaving it attached by one large vein. A bypass machine kept Jenkins' blood flowing while chilled blood kept his heart preserved.

"So his heart was relaxed and asleep the whole time we were doing the heart aspect of the operation," Dr. Peterseim said.

Surgeons removed the mass.

"We sewed up all the tiny little blood vessels that were feeding that tumor."

Then, they reconstructed the back chamber with his own heart tissue.

"After we finished reconstructing him, then we let his heart wake back up," Dr. Peterseim said.

Jenkins made a speedy recovery. He was home from the hospital in about a week.

"Sometimes, you can have something and take it for granted and something can happen to make you open your eyes and let you see," Jenkins said.

If the tumor was left untreated, doctors say Jenkins would have had six to eight months to live. A scan six months after the surgery shows he's disease-free.