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Tuesday, November 3, 1998 Published at 11:43 GMT


Briton saved by metal heart

Julie Mills was taken to Oxford for the life-saving operation

A British student teacher has become the first person in the world to be successfully fitted with a revolutionary artificial heart.

Science Correspondent Sue Nelson reports on the pioneering metal heart
Julie Mills, 21, was just minutes away from death when a rare virus attacked her heart.

But a renowned Oxford surgeon was able to fit the small device - which took the strain away from her own faltering organ for a crucial six days.

Ms Mills, from Reigate in Surrey, was only the fourth person to receive the surgical implant - developed in the US - but the first to survive.

Ms Mills, who has recovered to full health and is hoping to return to college, said: "It is hard to believe that only 12 weeks ago I was so close to death.

[ image: Julie Mills: Kept alive for six days without a pulse]
Julie Mills: Kept alive for six days without a pulse
"I was astounded when I was told what I had been through and that I was the first person in the country to have this artificial heart."

Experts at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford had acted to insert the artificial heart - known as a left ventricular assist device - after her heart was attacked by the potentially fatal illness, viral myocarditis.

Her initial flu-like symptoms, first diagnosed in August, caused a swift decline in her health as she was transferred from a hospital near her home to a high dependency heart unit at the Middlesex Hospital in London.

Stephen Westaby: Inexpensive way for patients to survive and keep their own heart
Her condition became critical and doctors asked cardiac specialist Stephen Westaby for his help in saving her life.

No decision to be made

As the virus continued to weaken and overload her heart, Ms Mill's parents and her sister Erica were warned she might not survive the 55-mile ambulance journey to Oxford.

Gretta Mills told the BBC that there was no question Julie would not undergo the operation.

"There was no decision to be made really because it was a situation of, 'They use this or she'd be dead'."

[ image: The revolutionary AB180 implant]
The revolutionary AB180 implant
Within three hours of her arrival at the Oxford hospital at 0400 BST on 14 August, Julie was in theatre to receive the implant, called the AB180, after Dr Westaby decided it was her last chance of survival.

Now heralded as a major breakthrough in the treatment of life-threatening heart conditions, the implant had only been previously used in the UK on sheep.

Developed over seven years and costing £3,000, the AB180 is relatively inexpensive compared with other artificial hearts.

Dr Westaby said: "The key thing is that the patient keeps their own heart. The inflammation and swelling of Julie's heart muscle was blocking the blood vessels.

"She was on three different types of support device and falling fast. If your heart stops, you will die and she was only minutes away.

"The most exciting concept this has shown is that if you rest a sick heart, even if it has reached an advanced stage of deterioration it can recover."

The device works by being hooked up to the main arteries supplying the heart, pumping blood around the body.

This allows the heart to be kept alive but without having to do any work so it can recover independently.

Unlike other artificial devices, it does not attempt to mimic the rhythm of the heart with a pulse, circulating blood in a continuous flow instead.

Doctors took the implant out six days after the operation when Ms Mills showed marked signs of improvement, and they decided that her own heart was working well enough.

Julie Mills' story will be told in a BBC One Tomorrow's World Special at 1930 GMT on Wednesday 4 November.

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