​Device helps heart pump blood around teen's body while he awaits transplant

Charles Choong with the bag containing the battery pack and controller for the device in his body that helps his heart do its work for now. -- ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Sporty teenager Charles Choong never suspected he had a weak heart. After all, he swam, and even has a black belt in taekwondo.

But his low blood pressure after an appendicitis operation led to the diagnosis of an enlarged and weak heart. The operation was in February last year. By August this year, his condition had deteriorated and he had severe heart failure.

Charles, 14, now has a mechanical heart-assist device implanted in his body.

The device helps the heart pump blood to the rest of the body, and is attached by tubes to an external controller and battery pack, which Charles carries around in a slingbag.

The device is a stop-gap measure, until a heart transplant is available. It also helps improve one's quality of life.

On average, about three heart transplants are done in Singapore every year.

After his condition worsened and before he got the device, Charles could not do rigorous activities and even climbing stairs could leave him breathless.

His classroom had to be moved from the fourth level to the first, because he could not handle the stairs.

'My friends can do PE, but I cannot,' he told reporters at the 10th anniversary of the National Heart Centre's (NHC) Mechanical Heart Device Programme yesterday.

The Secondary 2 student at Si Ling Secondary is the youngest in Asia to have such an implant, and he is also one of 49 people here to have received such a device since NCH launched the programme in 2001.

Charles has the Heartmate II, the newest and most sophisticated model. It costs about $160,000, excluding surgery and hospitalisation. However, there are medical subsidies available.

Initially, it was a shock to Charles that he would have to carry part of his 'heart' in a bag.

'It's sad but I have no choice; medication cannot help me,' he said, adding that he hopes to get a transplant in a year or two.

'I want to work out, go to the gym and build muscles,' he replied when asked what he plans to do for now.

His mother Jacqueline Liau, 48, who works in internal audit, said she has noticed the positive changes in the youngest of her three children since his operation.

She admitted that costs in the longer term are an 'issue' but the family is looking at the subsidies available.

'We take it in our stride,' she said. 'Seeing him happy and healthy is worth everything we have to do.'