Just five months ago, the administrative assistant was staring death in the face, or, at best, a life of being hooked up to a machine which would do the work of her ailing heart.

Now, a 400g artificial heart whirrs in her chest below her own heart, circulating oxygenated blood in her body continuously on the power of a rotor, which is why no pulse throbs in her wrist.

It will keep her alive until a suitable heart donor can be found. Meanwhile, she looks after her toddler, and can go shopping and for walks in the park.

Heart Mate II is the name of the gadget. It has been around for about five years, but was only brought in for use here recently, following years of observation by cardiac surgeons here.

Four patients here - with Madam Salina being the first one - have now had the device it implanted.

Diagnosed with an enlarged heart six years ago, she developed a severely irregular heartbeat last year and was not on track to see her daughter grow up.

The little girl, conceived and born in 2007 while her mother was in a relatively stable condition, turns two today.

When Madam Salina's condition worsened last year, she was put on the heart transplant list, but the chances of her getting a new heart were not good - her condition was just too unstable.

Implanting an older artificial heart model for the interim was also ruled out. At just 1.56m tall and 45kg, she was too petite for the 1.2kg device, which would have had to be implanted in her abdomen because of its size.

Patients need to be at least 1.7m tall and weigh at least 65kg to take the older artificial heart model.

Such constraints aside, older devices do not last as long, or work as quietly, as the Heart Mate II. They last no more than two years, while the Heart MateII has been shown to last more than four years in overseas patients, said Dr C.Sivathasan, who heads the mechanical heart device programme at the National Heart Centre.

The centre, which carries out all artificial heart implants here, has implanted mechanical hearts of various models in 33 patients since 2001. It gets 30 patients with end-stage heart failure every year, among whom six to eight get on the waiting list for a transplant.

Because three in 10 of those patients wait-listed die before a replacement heart becomes available, a stop-gap is to implant mechanical hearts until a suitable heart is found.

But until May, this was not an option for patients of smaller build, like Madam Salina.

In the longer term, if later studies show Heart Mate II to be durable, it will be offered to heart-failure patients, not just to those awaiting heart transplants, said Dr Lim Chong Hee, a senior consultant in the centre's cardiothoracic surgery department.

Madam Salina has to put up with some inconveniences though: She cannot take a proper shower. She has to sponge clean herself daily.

She also has to carry around batteries - good for up to five hours - which are connected to the implanted heart via a cable in her abdomen; at home, she plugs in to a power console.

But she is nonetheless thankful to be alive. Referring to her daughter, she said: 'I feel fortunate that I have the chance to celebrate her birthday with her.'

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.