Artificial heart patient says his motivation is to someday go home

By Dylan T. Lovan, The Associated Press
Saturday March 30, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Even if he was a little out of breath from his morning workout, Tom Christerson still stopped a hospital employee Friday to shake his hand. 

“See you tomorrow!” said Christerson, who has lived the longest — nearly 6 1/2 months — with the AbioCor self-contained artificial heart. 

The training session at a Jewish Hospital rehab center is a daily routine for Christerson, 71, who says he is looking forward to a short trip home to western Kentucky in the next couple of weeks. Last week, he moved out of his hospital room and into an adjacent hotel. 

“I think about home very seriously all the time,” he told The Associated Press after the short workout. “And I’m hoping that they’ll let us go either this weekend or next weekend. But I know I’m not ready to be discharged completely.” 

The AbioCor, a plastic and titanium pump, was implanted Sept. 13. He was the second person, behind Robert Tools of Franklin, Ky., to get the heart. Tools died Nov. 30 after living about five months. 

Christerson’s daughter, Pat Pryor, said her dad was so weak before the surgery, walking four or five steps was a struggle. Pryor said her dad was never someone who exercised a lot, but he has a different mindset now. 

“Now he sees it as a means to the end, so he’s going to do whatever it takes,” Pryor said, as she watched her dad take laps around the room. “He’s getting stronger and stronger every day. He’ll be turning cartwheels next time you see him.” 

His workout included walking laps with weights wrapped around his ankles, leg raises and walking along a red stripe on the floor. 

At one point, Christerson’s physical therapist asked him how the walk along the stripe felt. Christerson said OK, so he lined the patient up for another march, this time backward. 

Christerson jokingly protested. “I said that last thing was easy and he overheard it.” 

Christerson repeatedly credits his two University of Louisville surgeons, Drs. Robert Dowling and Laman Gray, for his recovery. Christerson and Dowling are scheduled to throw out the first pitch at an exhibition baseball game Saturday. 

Christerson, a popular figure in his hometown, said he’s already made arrangements for his return home. Recently, some friends visited him and he gave them a special request. 

“I said you get that damn fire truck ready, I want a ride on it, with the sirens going full blast,” he said. “They said they’d do that for me, so I’m anxious to get on that fire truck.”