State's first child to be implanted with Berlin Heart device receives new heart

Dr. Mark Bleiweis, a University of Florida College of Medicine cardiac surgeon, checks the Berlin Heart he and other surgeons placed in Alexzander Wood, 9. Last fall, Wood became the first child in  Florida  to receive the mechanical device, which kept him alive and improved his condition while he waited for a transplant. Wood finally received his new heart Feb. 19 when a donated organ became available. (Photo by Sarah Kiewel/University of Florida)Dr. Mark Bleiweis, a University of Florida College of Medicine cardiac surgeon, checks the Berlin Heart he and other surgeons placed in Alexzander Wood, 9. Last fall, Wood became the first child in Florida to receive the mechanical device, which kept him alive and improved his condition while he waited for a transplant. Wood finally received his new heart Feb. 19 when a donated organ became available. (Photo by Sarah Kiewel/University of Florida)

Last night, 9-year-old Alexzander Wood, who in September was the state's first child to be implanted with a Berlin Heart mechanical device, received a heart transplant.

He is listed in good condition at Shands Children's Hospital at the University of Florida, where he has been since Aug. 13.

"This was a high-risk, complicated surgery and we're ecstatic that Alex is doing so well today," said UF College of Medicine cardiac surgeon Dr. Mark Bleiweis. "You have to see him to believe him - he's stable, already off his ventilator, sitting up and begging to get out of bed."

The Orange Park boy suffered from idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, a weakness of the heart muscle possibly caused by a virus. Last fall, his condition worsened and he was at risk for organ failure. On Sept. 29, the transplant team implanted the Berlin Heart biventricular assist device, sized specifically for children and designed to boost a failing heart's ability to pump until a donor organ becomes available. Alexzander was the state's first child to receive this kind of VAD, most of which extends outside the body and connects to the heart via tubes implanted in the patient's chest. The device is connected to a portable, computerized unit that has allowed Alexzander some mobility in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Shands at UF.

A compatible donor heart became available Monday morning.

"We were ready to start the transplant around 4:30 p.m. yesterday and Alex insisted on walking himself into the operating room, pushing his VAD machine, head held high. He wasn't afraid," Bleiweis said. "With this kid, nothing is unexpected."

The Shands and UF transplant teams spent more than seven hours performing the complicated transplant. They were challenged by Alexzander's scar tissue from his previous surgery and difficulties balancing his body's blood-clotting process, which was affected by the blood-thinning medication he required for the VAD.

"When we were told that they'd found a heart for Alex yesterday, it was his most exciting moment," said Elizabeth Wood, Alexzander's mother. "He said he couldn't wait to come home."

Elizabeth said she has been thinking of the donor family's compassionate decision to give the gift of life.

"If someone hadn't made the decision to donate, Alex would still be waiting," she said. She and her family are registered organ donors.

She is grateful that the UF medical team and Shands administration worked so hard to obtain approval for Alexzander to receive the Berlin Heart, which kept him alive for more than four months. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the Berlin Heart but the agency allowed UF and Shands to move forward on a one-time, compassionate use basis. The UF Institutional Review Board and Shands officials also had to approve the procedure. Alexzander was the 68th child in the United States and Canada, and one of only 200 internationally, to receive the Berlin Heart.

Berlin Heart 2-Large"I want to thank Dr. Bleiweis for everything he's done for my son. I want to thank Dr. Jay Fricker and all our UF doctors and the Shands nurses and staff for always being here for Alex," she said. "I can't thank them enough for what they've done for us."

Bleiweis said his small patient has inspired him.

"It was amazing to see Alex sitting up just a few hours after returning from the OR and after such a long, complex operation. We're extremely pleased with his progress at this time," he said.

The team remains cautious, however.

"The next few days are critical as we watch Alex and monitor his condition," Bleiweis said. "A lot can happen and we are guarded yet optimistic at the same time. For everything he's been through, Alex is doing extremely well right now."

Alexzander is in the third grade at Fleming Island Elementary School. His mother works in registration at Orange Park Medical Center.

"I also want to thank all the people in Jacksonville, in our community, who have been supportive," Elizabeth said. "Finally, Alex got his heart. We can't wait for him to come home."