“A lot of people did not understand how I was still walking, talking and breathing,” Prince Ashford said.
Prince Ashford’s heart was double the size of a healthy heart and his lungs were congested with clots. He was 34 years old and about to die.
Prince’s health declined in 2013. Prince worked as a carpenter in Milwaukee when, one day, his chest suddenly hurt so much that his supervisor rushed him to the emergency room at Froedtert Hospital.
“The next thing you know, years later, I am in this bed,” Prince said. “It was kind of like ‘wow’ because I had never had any heart problems.”
Prince later learned he would need a heart-and-lung transplant, an extremely risky procedure that would require him to wait for not one, but two donor organs. His case was evaluated by hospitals around the country, but no team of doctors would take it on.
“At that moment in time, I just gave up,” Prince said. “It seemed like nobody cared.”
“It was either accepting death or going for this high-risk case,” said Lyle Joyce, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Froedtert Hospital.
Medical College of Wisconsin doctors at Froedtert Hospital decided to try something that had never been done. Father-and-son duo, Drs. Lyle and David Joyce, performed a pulmonary thromboendarterectomy (PTE) and implanted a total artificial heart (TAH). Few centers in the world have the surgeons trained to do these procedures.
“The first thing you’re doing is making a major incision and cutting the chest open,” Dr. David Joyce said. “For a lot of people that is a big deal. That is open-heart surgery; it is a real operation. Then, you are putting the patient on the heart-lung machine, and you are actually cutting out the heart. That is a pretty big deal as well. But then, you’re cooling the body down, and you’re stopping the circulation for 20 minutes at a time and getting all these clots out of the lung. If you get in the wrong tissue plane, that could be a life-threatening event. Then, you are sewing back in an artificial organ that is going to completely replace the function of the human heart. And then, finally, you are separating from the bypass circuit, closing the chest, and you’re heading up to the intensive care unit (ICU). When you put all that together, I truly believe there is no more complicated or high-risk procedure that a human being can go through.”
Dr. Lyle Joyce was on the team that implanted the first permanent artificial heart in 1982.
“Very few people at my level have a mentor who they operate with, who can teach them these things and who has had the depth of experience that he has to offer,” Dr. David Joyce said.
The Joyces gave Prince hope.
“It was like a miracle because just a couple of weeks ago they were speaking of death and now they are coming to me speaking of life,” Prince said. “I was like ‘okay, we’re going to fight this out.’”
With Prince’s blessing, his medical team immediately began preparing for the surgery, which was on Oct. 20, 2017.
“Everybody that was going to be touching that patient sat in a conference room,” Dr. David Joyce said. “We pulled up pictures. We looked at all the different scenarios, and we walked through the operation. We lived that operation, step for step.”
After roughly six hours in the operating room, Prince had a new, total artificial heart and healthy lungs. Thanks to the PTE, Prince no longer needed a lung transplant, and the total artificial heart would keep him alive until he can get a heart transplant.
“I believe that the Joyces and the whole cardiology team gave me a second birthday,” Prince said.
The total artificial heart is powered by a machine called the Freedom® Driver. The machine goes everywhere Prince goes, in a bag or backpack.
“The immediate goal is to get him out of the hospital on the Freedom Driver and let him get back to ‘normal’ life again,” Dr. David Joyce said.
The complexity of Prince’s case requires a dedicated team of specially trained staff in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU). They provide constant supervision and can also continuously monitor his blood pressure, remotely, thanks to new, implantable Bluetooth technology called CardioMEMS™. The CardioMEMS was directly inserted into the lungs as part of the operation before sewing in the total artificial heart.
Prince spent Christmas and New Year’s in the hospital. He has good days and bad days, but he is grateful for each new day and whatever comes next in his journey to transplant.
“I am going to go through pain, aches, soreness, but that all comes with it,” Prince said. “I have to be a healthier me, a better me.”
As with any medical journey, patient conditions can change unexpectedly.
Since posting this video, Prince has passed away. We extend our condolences to his family, his friends, his dedicated care team and all who were inspired by his journey. After talking with Prince’s family, we have agreed to keep this video published as a tribute to Prince and his courageous battle.