CENTRAL CITY, Ky. (July 10, 2002) — Former tire dealer Tom Christerson likes to spend his days in Central City catching up on politics and gossip with his friends at the coffee shops and barber shops.
That may not seem like much to do, but for a man who is the first person in medical history to go home from a hospital with an artificial heart, Mr. Christerson knows that he's fortunate to be alive.
On Sept. 13, 2001, the 70-year-old Mr. Christerson underwent surgery to replace his diseased heart with an AbioCor implantable artificial heart at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky. He was the second person ever to receive an AbioCor heart as part of a clinical trial—and the longest living recipient. He was released from Jewish Hospital April 16 and went home.
A former owner of Pace Tire Center Inc. in Central City—now operated by his son Ken—Mr. Christerson told Tire Business that he's been recovering well from the surgery and is gradually regaining his strength through physical therapy. He still can't quite take his boats out yet and go fishing, but he can move about without any pain—which wasn't true prior to his historic surgery.
“I had chest pain that got worse and worse in the last 12 years,” Mr. Christerson said, referring to the time since his 1990 heart attack, when about half of his heart tissue died. The doctors never diagnosed a specific disease, but Mr. Christerson acknowledged that he had smoked four to five packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life before quitting 13 years prior to his heart attack.
“I believe it caught up with me,” he said of his old habit.
Mr. Christerson underwent an angioplasty shortly after the attack that helped him recover, but he said that though the doctors never diagnosed him with any particular disease, it became more apparent that he needed a transplant, but he kept procrastinating.
“That's something you don't really want to do if you can get by with something else,” he said.
The success of the angioplasty allowed Mr. Christerson to put off a transplant beyond age 65—the cutoff age for heart transplant candidates, Ken Christerson explained.
By 2001, his health had deteriorated so much in a year's time that “he couldn't walk across a room without looking like he'd run a marathon,” according to Ken.
He said his dad decided to check out what Jewish Hospital had to offer in cardiac care upon the recommendation of a friend who had received care there, as well as the Christersons' stock broker, who lived in the same neighborhood as one of the top heart surgeons.
Mr. Christerson hadn't even heard that the hospital was a test site for the AbioCor heart until he got there.
“At first he was kind of against it,” Ken said. But Mr. Christerson's health grew worse while undergoing tests at Jewish Hospital to see if he qualified for the AbioCor trial heart. His blood pressure dropped sharply, Ken explained, and the doctors estimated that he could live only 30 days without a new heart.
Only one other person—Robert L. Tools—had received the AbioCor artificial heart, in July 2001. A visit with him as well as the doctors' prognosis convinced Mr. Christerson he had nothing to lose by agreeing to the surgery.
“I never really had a choice,” Mr. Christerson said of his implant. “It was either get the heart or I was going to die. I went up (to Jewish Hospital), checked in and they went to work on me. I didn't have time to think about it.”
Except for a drug-induced fever that spiked his temperature up to 107 degrees for half a day and a bedsore, Mr. Christerson didn't have any complications during his seven-month stay at the hospital. That wasn't the case for Mr. Tools, who died from multi-organ failure last November.
The AbioCor heart, manufactured by Abiomed Inc., is made of titanium and polyether-based polyurethane plastic and includes two artificial ventricles with their corresponding valves and a motor-driven hydraulic pumping system. The heart operates on both internal and external lithium batteries, according to information from Jewish Hospital's Web site.
The heart's electronic system controls the pumping speed of the device.
A total of seven patients have received the AbioCor heart, but not all the surgeries were done in Louisville, a Jewish Hospital spokeswoman said. Of those seven, the last two recipients died on the operating table and three suffered strokes.
Mr. Christerson is the only person to have survived long enough to go home, the spokeswoman said.
Nearly three months later, Mr. Christerson continues to progress in his recovery. But he and his family have had to make many adjustments. He goes to physical therapy three times a week and makes the 120-mile drive to Louisville once a week for regular checkups.
When Mr. Christerson goes out, he carries the battery pack around his waist at all times. A wire from the pack transmits electricity to a receiver underneath his skin. “I can't leave home without it,” he said.
In Central City—a town of approximately 5,000—the Kentucky Utilities Co. has placed Mr. Christerson on its emergency list in case of a power outage.
An emergency plan has been developed to transport him quickly to the hospital, and a helicopter even flew to his home to practice emergency procedures, he said.
Ken Christerson said he and his sister, Patty Pryor, take turns sleeping over at their parents' house because Mr. Christerson is hooked up to a computer that monitors all bodily functions, and occasionally the receiver that takes in all that data will shut down and set off an alarm.
Ken and his sister make sure the alarm doesn't go off during the night, then get up to go to work at Pace Tire. Ken operates the Central City store while Patty and her husband, Keith, operate the other Pace Tire store in Greenville, Ky.
Mr. Christerson is the son of a former Texaco service station owner and worked in the tire business from age 16 until his retirement in 1984. He purchased Gentry Tire, a single store dealership, from his wife's brother-in-law in 1958 and changed the name to Pace Tire.
He called that deal “the most wonderful thing I ever did in my life. For us, it made a good living.”
After Mr. Christerson's retirement, Ken took over the business and opened three additional stores, but eventually sold two of them because he didn't have the time to manage four stores, he told Tire Business.
Ken now owns the Central City location, and the Greenville store is a 50/50 joint venture between Ken and Patty. Pace Tire sells Bridgestone, Firestone, El Dorado, Michelin and Yokohama brands.
Tire sales comprise 65 percent of total sales at the Central City location and 40 percent at the Greenville outlet. Pace Tire also has a few commercial accounts, Ken said.
As a tire changer for the NASCAR circuit's Busch Grand National Series on weekends, Ken admits that it's been tough for him to help care for his dad and mind the business at the same time—especially during Mr. Christerson's long hospital stay.
“Luckily, we've had good people because there's no way that I could have been here,” he said.