SynCardia Total Artificial Heart Gives 23-Year-Old with Heart Cancer a Chance at Transplant

If Total Artificial Heart recipient Rebecca Henderson remains cancer-free until January 2019, she will be put on the heart transplant waiting list.

LONDON, England — Aug. 31, 2018 — Until last year, Rebecca Henderson, 23, led a healthy, busy life as a student pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Oxford. She didn’t drink or smoke and did high-intensity interval training and cycling for at least an hour a day.

When she started feeling tired and having headaches, she assumed it was just a cold or a virus. But after she collapsed coming home from school one day, doctors diagnosed her with sepsis, pneumonia, an inflamed gallbladder and severe stomach bleeding. As fluid began to build up in her body, breathing became increasingly difficult and her organs began to fail. Shortly thereafter, specialists discovered an egg-sized mass embedded in her right heart ventricle, which was preventing her heart from pumping normally. When the biopsy results came back as cancer — grade 3 spindle cell sarcoma of the heart — her whole world came crashing down.

Rebecca underwent chemotherapy, but the tumor continued to grow with astonishing speed. She was given the choice of emergency surgery or to be “made comfortable.” She opted for the surgery.

Due to the tumor’s size and the condition of Rebecca’s heart at the time of the operation, her surgeon, Dr. Andre Simon, Director of Heart and Lung Transplantation and Ventricular Assist Devices at Harefield Hospital, determined that her best chance at survival would be to remove her heart — and the tumor along with it — and replace it with the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH).  

When Rebecca came to, she was a bit shocked to hear the “loud thumping of [her] new heart,” but ultimately she was just “relieved to be alive.”

Once her condition stabilized, Rebecca was discharged home using the Freedom® Portable Driver, a portable pump for the SynCardia TAH that can be carried in the provided Shoulder Bag or Backpack.

Rebecca has been cancer-free since her heart was replaced with the TAH — if she remains so until January 2019, she will be put on the heart transplant waiting list. In the meantime, she plans on returning to Oxford in October and applying to PhD programs.

While her journey has been difficult and is still far from over, Rebecca remains optimistic and focused on the future. “I’m scared of the cancer returning, of going under the knife for the third time,” she explains, “but I’m also hopeful that I’ll get back to not only living, but thriving.”

Hear Rebecca tell her story in her own words via the Guardian.