How to Heal a Broken Heart

Excerpted from UPMC Health Journal magazine, July/August 2005

When Erika Haas got sick, she didn't imagine that she'd become a pioneer in regenerative medicine. She was in class at a Pittsburgh-area mortuary school. It was the day before Valentine's Day, 2003.

"I thought I had bronchitis, because the girl next to me had it," says the 30-year-old. She was partly right. It was a virus. But it was hitting her body much harder than her classmate's: It was causing her heart to fail.

Ms. Haas has only hazy memories of the following days, in which she was rushed to UPMC St. Margaret hospital, then to UPMC Presbyterian. She awoke attached to a heart-assist device — an artificial pump that takes on some of the heart's burden of circulating blood.

Ms. Haas awoke surrounded by her parents and all six siblings. Their presence didn't reassure her: none of them live in Pennsylvania. "I knew there must be something really wrong."

This time, she was completely right. The doctors told her she would likely need a heart transplant to save her life.

Her doctors did hold out a slim hope: there was a small chance that her heart, working less hard because of the assist device, might heal itself.

Dr. Robert Kormos, medical director of the McGowan Institute and director of the UPMC Artificial Heart Program, says that if used early in heart failure, an assist device makes the heart more receptive to healing. Dr. Kormos and his team have found that by cautiously proceeding, they can wean about six percent of patients from heart assist devices. But they aren't satisfied with that number: They want to know how to wean more patients from heart-assist devices by prompting the cellular processes that healed Ms. Haas. They think that assist devices combined with drug or cell treatments that can speed the heart's healing may hold the answer.

This is the crux of regenerative medicine: to harness and amplify natural healing processes, and activate them when and where they're critically needed.

For Ms. Haas, the news that she would not need a transplant came in small steps.

In a series of tests, Ms. Haas' medical team turned off the assist device, first transferring her to a hand-operated pump, then to no assist at all — all the while watching to see how well her heart would handle the load. "Each time I had my fingers crossed, hoping for the results to be good," she says.

"I'll never forget the day they told me I didn't need a transplant," she says. "It makes me feel bittersweet, because I know that there are people in the hospital right now, fighting to survive. I know what it's like to be in the position of waiting for someone to die so that you can live."

Today, Ms. Haas has picked up her life where she left off. She wants to help people understand the importance of medical research. "I show them my scars and say, 'See, I have this big scar and I'm young and that stinks... But I'm here,' " she says.

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