A change of heart: Mid-South teen kept alive with artificial heart

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - “I was 19, I was too young to do everything I was not supposed to do with my life,” said Chadarius Johnson. “I could lose my life and I wasn’t ready to die.”

Johnson was like most 19-year-old boys... or so he thought.

“I was playing basketball and I was trying to tell the coach to call time out,” said Johnson. “Then, when he called time out, the next thing I knew I was in the hospital.”

It was a basketball game that would forever change his life.

The surgical director of the Baptist Health Heart Transplant Institute Dr. John Ransom described the occurrence as a sudden death episode.

“Basically, he was playing basketball and had a heart rhythm problem,” said Ransom. “Basically, he died on the basketball court, but luckily people were there to resuscitate him.”

A near death experience at the age of 19 was only the beginning of Chad’s medical problems.

He would soon find out he had congestive heart failure.

“I realized, I’m too young,” said Johnson.

Doctors installed a pacemaker in hopes of saving Chad.

“From 2013-2015, the pacemaker would shock me, everything he (Doctor) told me not to do, to not go play basketball, not to get overheat, not to be overwhelmed, not to stress,” said Johnson.

Unfortunately, the pacemaker was not the answer to Chad’s problems.

“I got a bad little cough and that made fluid go on my heart,” said Johnson. “I just felt it, I called the doctor and said, ‘I’m on my way, I have fluid on my heart.’”

Numerous tests and surgeries would consume the following months.

“My liver failed, my kidney, and my heart- it just happened out of the blue,” said Johnson. “The next thing I know the doctor told me I had to get an ECMO, so that’s life support.”

While Chad was on ECMO, also known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, doctors were hoping that he would get a donor heart.

But, time ran out.

“We had already used the ECMO for 30 days,” said Ransom. “Which is really extending what you normally use that for, as far as length of time.”

That’s when Dr. John Ransom had to act fast.

“Our only other option without a donor heart transplant was going to a total artificial heart,” said Ransom.

He went over it and I told doc, I said, ‘doc, do what you have to do in order for me to live,’” said Johnson.

Dr. Ransom was no stranger to implanting mechanical support devices.

Dr. John Ransom of the Baptist Health Heart Institute in Little Rock explaining a support device.
Dr. John Ransom of the Baptist Health Heart Institute in Little Rock explaining a support device. (KAIT)

The team at Baptist Health has installed hundreds of “Heartmates.”

These are a type of left ventricular assist device that provide short and long-term mechanical circulatory support.

They are known for helping patients with advanced refractory left ventricular heart failure.

“We have L-Vads or left ventricular assists device that supports just the left side of the heart which, most of the time is adequate,” said Ransom. “And then, we have temporary devices that work 30 days or less usually that will support one or both sides of the heart.”

But, this was Dr. Ransom’s first installation of a total artificial heart.

A diagram of an artificial heart.
A diagram of an artificial heart. (Baptist Health Little Rock)

In fact, it is the first and only artificial heart in the state of Arkansas.

“Dr. Ransom, he was ready, he was ready to go,” said Johnson. “I told Doc. I said Doc, just put me to sleep, do what you’ve go to do and wake me up. I know he’s going to take care of me. He’ll take care of me."

A two–day groundbreaking surgery took place at Baptist Health in Little Rock on April 18, 2017.

A battery-operated device containing the same components as a real human heart was successfully installed in Chad.

“I’m alive, I cried because I’m alive,” said Chad. “I don’t know how long I was asleep, I don’t know how long it took to do the surgery.”

The surgery went well but, it was a challenge for Chad to recover.

A picture of Chadarius Johnson after receiving the total artificial heart.
A picture of Chadarius Johnson after receiving the total artificial heart. (Chadarius Johnson)

“Middle of May, I started doing therapy and this was the hardest part because, then I had to learn how to walk again,” said Johnson. “You’ve got to learn how make up a bed, how to get out of a bed, how to walk up stairs, how to get in a car, how to do everything.”

Chad is now completely reliant on the SynCardia total artificial heart.

“If this device stops, he has no blood flow at all,” said Ransom. “Without this, it’s a matter of seconds and he wouldn’t be alive.”

The device is connected through his stomach through tubes.

He carries this backpack with him everywhere.

“At first it was heavy, it’s like 18 pounds,” said Johnson. “But, it ain’t heavy no more.”

The battery-operated device is run by batteries and a controller.

“There’s alarms and ways that can diagnose if something is going wrong with the power source,” said Ransom. “It gives him an alert to do something.”

Chadarius holding his backpack, after receiving a total artificial heart.
Chadarius holding his backpack, after receiving a total artificial heart. (Chadarius Johnson)

While the device might keep Chad alive now, he will still require a heart transplant in the future.

And, the sooner the better, because he’s had it for over a year and a half now.

“With the total artificial heart the longest that’s ever had, anybody that’s ever had those in has been four to five years,” said Ransom. “So, we want to get him transplanted as soon as possible.”

“The Lord is going to bless me one day, and when that day comes the lord knows I will be on that highway going to Little Rock,” said Johnson.

Chad, now a 23-year-old, is thankful for what Dr. Ransom was able to do but, misses parts of his old life.

“I just want to play basketball, that’s my number 1 priority to play basketball,” said Johnson. “As soon as I get a heart, I’m running up out of the hospital.”

“My hope is a 23 year old that we can get him transplanted sometime within the next few months,” said Ransom. “And, that he will recover and have a really good life expectancy and a normal life for a change- without being tethered to a power source."

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