After 332 days, teen artificial heart recipient leaves Shands


Lexi Henderson, shown here carrying the mini suitcase that contains an artificial heart device called the "Freedom Driver," was discharged from UF Health Shands Hospital on Friday.

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Published: Friday, April 18, 2014 at 6:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 21, 2014 at 10:42 a.m.

Clarification: Dr. Mark Bleiweis is the principal cardiothoracic surgeon for the UF Health Congenital Heart Center at at UF Health Shands Children's Hospital. The doctor’s position was unclear in an earlier version of this article.

Nalexia “Lexi” Henderson's birthday present came a couple of days early.

On Friday, the 16-year-old Sanford native, who turns 17 on Easter Sunday, was discharged from UF Health Shands Hospital -- after 332 days.

This alone would be cause for celebration, but what makes Lexi's exit especially remarkable is that she is leaving with a portable heart in hand -- literally.

Inside a mini suitcase that Lexi carries like a briefcase is a device called the “Freedom Driver,” which contains a battery-operated case that allows people with artificial hearts to come and go as they normally would.

For Lexi, that means a first stop at the nail salon, the movies (she wants to see “Heaven is for Real”) and the mall.

Lexi had her first transplant when she was 9 years old because of a condition that is likely genetic, said Dr. Mark Bleiweis, Lexi's doctor, principal cardiothoracic surgeon for the UF Health Congenital Heart Center.

Damaged coronary arteries from Lexi's first transplant led to the need for a second transplant, Bleiweis added.

Lexi and her family will be staying close to Shands, at housing for transplant patients, so her doctors and nurses can keep tabs on her. She wears a bracelet bearing Bleiweis' cell phone number.

Lexi's family members and caregivers have been trained in how to monitor the artificial heart inside the case, which is called the SynCardia heart, and is made by SynCardia Systems. According to the company, Lexi is the youngest patient in the U.S. to receive the SynCardia heart and its accompanying Freedom Driver case.

Patients use the device until they can receive a donor heart, and four years is the longest that someone has used an artificial heart, according to the company.

The average wait time for a donor heart for pediatric patients such as Lexi is nine months, Bleiweis said.

Lexi has been waiting eleven months, and it's unknown how much longer she will have to wait, he added. In the meantime, she will be able to resume somewhat of a normal life.

“We're all a teeny bit nervous, but excited for her,” Bleiweis said. “She's doing great.”

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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