Man from Billings gets donor heart

2009-08-21T15:50:00Z Man from Billings gets donor heartDIANE COCHRAN Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
August 21, 2009 3:50 pm  • 

After living for 121 days on an artificial heart, a Billings man has received a donated human heart in Salt Lake City.

A medical team began working on Greg Michels at 3 a.m. Friday after word came Thursday night that a heart was available. It took nine hours to swap the artificial organ for the donated one.

Michels, 40, was placed on an artificial heart at Intermountain Medical Center after his own heart became so weak that it could not pump enough blood to keep him alive.

Michels was born with a normal heart but contracted a virus in college that damaged it.

Surgeons removed his heart May 1 and replaced it with a machine. Artificial ventricles sewn onto his aorta and pulmonary artery were powered by compressed air housed inside a 400-pound console.

Michels could not go anywhere without the console, which made a rhythmic whooshing noise as it forced air into the artificial ventricles. The ventricles clacked in time with the whooshing, a sound Michels could hear inside his head.

"Things were getting to Greg a little," said his wife, Joni Michels. "I'd come in and he'd have his head in his hands."

Joni and the couple's children, an 11-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, have been with Michels in Salt Lake since April.

Michels emerged from surgery at about noon on Friday with a good prognosis.

It took a couple of hours to remove the artificial heart because scar tissue had formed around it. After the donated heart was placed in his chest, surgeons waited five hours to sew Michels up because he was bleeding heavily.

The bleeding was expected. Michels had been on blood thinners to prevent a clot from forming in the artificial heart.

About 2,200 heart transplants are performed each year in the United States.

Only a few hundred people have survived on an artificial heart before receiving a donated organ.

Contact Diane Cochran at or 657-1287.

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