Charles Okeke had just turned 30 when a blood clot destroyed his heart. He had a heart transplant, and for 10 years life was good. Charles worked as a computer consultant and enjoyed life with his wife, Natalie, and their three beautiful children.
Then in 2008, Charles' body rejected his donor heart. Doctors discovered that his body produced antibodies that would make it especially hard to find a matching donor heart.
Because a transplant wasn't likely, Charles received an artificial heart that replaced both ventricles and all four valves. Tubes exited his abdomen and connected him to a large machine, nicknamed "Big Blue," which pumped blood just like a human heart.
The size of the machine made it impossible for Charles to leave the hospital. So, for nearly two years, 43-year-old Charles Okeke tried to live a normal life at Mayo Clinic in Arizona while tethered to a 400-pound machine.
Charles exercised daily, kept his spirits up and played cards with Mayo employees. He was grateful for the care and support he got at Mayo, but he candidly said the hospital sometimes felt "like being in prison, but with very nice guards."
To help break his boredom and confinement, Mayo volunteers and staff from Mayo Food and Nutrition Services put together a special dinner-and-a-movie date night for Charles and Natalie — inside the walls of the hospital.
They enjoyed hors d'oeuvres on the cafeteria patio, flowers on a beautifully set table, and an elegant private meal: Lobster quesadillas with cilantro cream and avocado salsa; a mixed salad with pears, walnuts, cranberries and gorgonzola; and pork medallions with wild mushroom sauce.
Not exactly your standard-issue cafeteria food.
Charles and Natalie relished the evening, laughing and sharing stories. After dinner, they took their place on a comfortable leather sofa to watch a movie with a bowl of popcorn. "The Mayo staff was wonderful," says Charles.
After nearly two hospital-bound years, Charles finally got his wish: the ability to go home. He would be the first U.S. patient to receive a groundbreaking portable heart. Called the 'Freedom Driver," the 13.5-pound battery-powered device designed to be carried in a backpack or shoulder bag was a huge change from Charles' 400-pound companion.
As a certified heart transplant center, Mayo Clinic was eligible to care for Charles as part of the investigational device exemption clinical study.
But freedom didn't come without worry for Charles — and his family. Charles wondered if the Freedom Driver would supply enough power to his heart so that his liver and kidneys could keep functioning. And he questioned if, aside from allowing him to go home, the backpack device was as safe and reliable as Big Blue.
As Francisco Arabia, M.D., his physician, explains, Charles needed to feel comfortable about the new device. His comfort level was, in fact, as important as all of his other organs working in concert.
After a few weeks of adjusting and readjusting the Freedom Driver, and quelling his fears, Mayo staff told Charles he was ready to leave the hospital at last.
When the elevator doors leading to the atrium of Mayo Clinic Hospital opened on that milestone day, Charles and Natalie, family members and caregivers were met by whoops, cheers and tears from hundreds of Mayo employees who had come to know and respect Charles over the years. This special patient had become a friend to many. Even CBS was there to capture the historic moment.
As Charles left carrying the lightweight backpack, a cafeteria worker handed him a bag of the cookies he'd enjoyed on his many trips though the cafeteria line with Big Blue in tow.
One Mayo staff member said, "The courage Charles displayed through his journey was a life-lesson for us."
Back at home, Charles continued to take his situation day by day, "just enjoying the people around me — just enjoying the ride."
Natalie was glad to have him home. "I want my husband to be around my kids, raising them. We want some laughing moments," she says.
Then, there was another joyful development. Within just a few months, Charles was called back to Mayo Clinic in Arizona for a heart transplant, this time from a human donor. Because of stress on his kidneys following his first heart transplant, it was optimal to do a combined heart/kidney transplant.
"It was a long wait, but fortunately a donor heart was made available that was a good match for Charles' unique antibody makeup," says Dr. Arabia. "It takes longer to get the right combination, and the wait was worth it. We expect Charles to do well."
Today Charles lives a full life with his family, unencumbered by machines and wires. "I want to thank the staff and nurses – they are incredible. The doctors are top notch. Mayo has treated me better than I could ever imagine," says Charles.