At a Glance:
At only 19 years old, Tiernee had battled two diseases for most of her young life: heart failure and kidney failure. When she became the first patient at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to receive the SynCardia temporary Total Artificial Heart (TAH), her doctors hoped it would bring her one step closer to winning her battle against end-stage heart failure. But they didn’t expect that it would also help save her remaining kidney.
As a young girl, Tiernee suffered from a form of kidney cancer called renal cell carcinoma. In addition to having one of her kidneys removed, she had to undergo chemotherapy, which weakened her heart. In August 2006, the summer before she started eighth grade, Tiernee received a heart transplant.
However, over the next few years, Tiernee’s body rejected her donor heart and her health began to deteriorate. She progressed to end-stage kidney (renal) failure and was looking at needing dialysis for the rest of her life. Doctors didn’t think she would survive the wait for another heart transplant, so they decided to implant the SynCardia TAH.
“I was nervous at first, obviously,” said Tiernee. “After I got over the initial shock, I just kind of thought, ‘OK… They’re going to put this device in me and I’m not going to have a heart. It’s going to be mechanical.’”
After receiving the SynCardia TAH, Tiernee was shocked at the immediate improvement.
Tiernee plays foosball with her surgeon, Dr. David L.S. Morales, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
For almost two months after her implant surgery, Tiernee’s kidney continued to produce no urine, so she was scheduled for surgery to receive a permanent catheter.
“We had been so hopeful that the kidney function would return,” said Dr. David L. S. Morales, chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at Cincinnati Children’s. “But after two months of no urine, we finally scheduled her for permanent dialysis access surgery the day after New Year’s Day.”
However, on New Year’s Day, Tiernee began making urine. “The SynCardia TAH really helped the rest of my body to recover,” said Tiernee.
Less than two weeks later, Tiernee was switched to the Freedom® Portable Driver, a smaller, lighter pump for the TAH that allows stable patients to be discharged home. The Freedom Driver allowed Tiernee, who felt healthier than she had in years, to leave the hospital and return home to her family.
At home, Tiernee’s 4-year-old brother liked to listen to the SynCardia TAH pumping in her chest, while her 9-year-old brother took pride in learning how to switch out the batteries in the Freedom Driver.
Tiernee also demonstrated her TAH and Freedom Driver to a class of captivated seventh graders at Cincinnati Country Day School. “I was glad they were able to see that being sick is not weird or crippling,” she said.
After 414 days of life with the SynCardia TAH, Tiernee received her second donor heart. When she was discharged from Cincinnati Children’s, she not only had a new heart, but also, as physicians had hoped, a fully recovered kidney.
“This experience has made me very optimistic that many of the livers and kidneys that fail due to heart disease could actually be recoverable with the [TAH],” said Dr. Morales. “Every time we put in this device, we learn something new.”
As for Tiernee, she’s thrilled to be back home with her new heart, and credits her survival to the SynCardia TAH.
“I was completely shocked [to learn about the TAH],” Tiernee remembers. “I found out that it wasn’t the end, that I had another chance at life.”