A change of heart

State's first child treated with the Berlin Heart device receives new heart.

By: Priscilla Santos
Alex is the first Floridian and the 68th child in North America to receive a Berlin Heart.

Alex is the first Floridian and the 68th child in North America to receive a Berlin Heart.

For the first nine years of his life, Alexzander Wood was a healthy, happy child doing everything a boy his age would do. Two weeks after he turned 9, everything changed. He went from playing outside to being constantly tired and sleeping all day, from always having a smile on his face to frowning all day. The Orange Park boy’s heart was failing due to idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy, a weakness of the heart muscle possibly caused by a virus.

Alexzander and his family never imagined the day they stepped into Shands at the University of Florida would be like walking into a miracle. On Sept. 29, Alex began to live again after receiving his first miracle — a Berlin Heart, a mechanical device sized just for children. Although it was a good day for Alex and his family, it was the first day of a long journey.

“He only had one week left,” says Elizabeth Wood, Alex’s mother.

Alex is the first Floridian and the 68th child in North America to receive a Berlin Heart. The Berlin Heart is designed to boost a heart’s pumping action until a donor organ becomes available. It is produced by Berlin Heart Inc. in Germany and is available in different sizes to suit infants and children. The device extends outside the body and connects to the heart through tubes in the patient’s chest.

“There weren’t many options other than the Berlin Heart,” says UF College of Medicine cardiac surgeon Dr. Mark Bleiweis, who led the surgical team. “It was the only great option we had.”

There was only one problem: The Berlin Heart hadn’t received Food and Drug Administration approval yet. But the agency allowed UF and Shands officials to proceed with the operation on a one-time compassionate use basis. A team from Berlin Heart Inc. flew in to help with the operation.

Almost immediately after receiving the Berlin Heart, Alex’s condition improved. His body accepted the Berlin Heart but next came four months of waiting for a second miracle – a new heart from a compatible donor. Shands became a second home for Alex, where he made lifelong friends.

On Feb. 19 a heart became available, and that night Alex went into surgery again. The transplant team was challenged by Alex’s scar tissue from his previous surgeries and balancing his body’s blood-clotting process. Despite complications, the surgery went surprisingly well.

“This was a high-risk, complicated surgery and we’re ecstatic that Alex is doing so well today,” Bleiweis said after finishing the surgery. “You have to see him to believe him — he’s stable, already off his ventilator, sitting up and begging to get out of bed.”

Doctors report that after Alex fully recuperates, he will have no exercise restrictions. Although they do not know how long it will take Alex to recuperate 100 percent, they do know that once he does, he will once again be able to do what normal 9-year-old boy’s do.