Newcastle Freeman: 18-month-old fitted with life-changing mobile heart device in UK first

  • Claire McGraith, Children's VAD and Heart Specialist Nurse, Newcastle Freeman

18-month-old Grace Westwood is the first child in the UK to have a mobile Berlin heart driving unit - and it was doctors at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital that fitted it.

In May, she received the portable driving unit which operates the pump assisting blood flow to the heart. 

Previously the Berlin heart pump was powered by a large heavy machine with a battery life of 20 to 30 minutes unplugged, meaning the vast majority of patient time had to be spent on the ward.

Grace’s new driving unit is fully portable, with a battery life of up to eight hours, which means mum and dad can attach it to a pushchair and do something most families take for granted – take their beloved daughter out for a walk.

The machine, which looks like a small suitcase, rests on two wheels with a handle for it to follow easily in tow, and comes with extra battery packs.

Award-winning technology

The development and launch of the mobile driving unit involved an international collaboration between RWTH Aachen University, Uniklinik RWTH Aachen, Newcastle Hospitals, Newcastle University, and Berlin Heart GmbH.

Last year their project ‘Mobile Autonomy for Children in End-stage Heart Failure” (MACH) won the 2020 Horizon Impact Award which celebrates outstanding EU funded projects that have used their results to provide value for society across Europe and beyond.

Consultant in paediatric cardiovascular intensive care medicine, Dr Emma Simpson, says, “Newcastle was pivotal in bringing this to market and our patients and families were also given a voice throughout the project which influenced the manufacture and design of this device.

“This has been an amazing collaborative effort involving some of the world’s experts in the care of children with VAD and a highly professional team at the Freeman.”

Grace's story

This pioneering treatment is the latest phase of a remarkable – but difficult - journey for Grace and her family which began when she was born in November 2019 and has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Currently, home to Grace is ward 23 at the Freeman Hospital where she is on the urgent waiting list for a heart transplant while parents Darren and Becci have uprooted their lives from the West Midlands to spend as much time as possible with her.

In the following months, Grace was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy and was given medication and her condition was closely monitored. However in March 2020, she took a turn for the worse and was rushed to Accident and Emergency.

“She was in a really bad way and had up to eight cardiac arrests in one day,” adds Darren.

“Her body was starting to shut down and she was put on dialysis for her kidneys. We were told to fear the worst but then she went back to being stable again although had to remain in paediatric intensive care. She then had further complications and the conversation had moved towards Grace needing a heart transplant at the Freeman.”

Grace was airlifted to the Freeman Hospital in May but pandemic restrictions meant her parents couldn’t go with her and instead had to endure an anxious car ride to Newcastle from Birmingham.

The following day, she had an eight-hour operation to have a Berlin heart Ventricular Assist Device (VAD) implanted – which will remain in place until a heart transplant is possible.

Grace has currently spent the longest time on Berlin Heart since the Freeman first started using this technology in 2005.

Mum Becci, who has not left Newcastle since Grace’s journey north, explains, “That was the longest drive of our lives – not knowing if she was going to make it through the flight and she was so poorly – but thanks to the Berlin Heart she survived and has come on leaps and bounds.

“She’s leading as normal a life as she can and is amazing in herself. She loves everything and everyone and, while we’ve got to be careful with her, she’s trying to walk, she’s chatty and smiling all the time.”

However, the pandemic has been an added complication for the family as, up until very recently, only one parent was able to visit Grace at any time, plus she has an older five-year-old brother, Josh, who has had to spend a lot of time in a support bubble with his grandparents.

Now, the mobile driving unit has been fitted, they are optimistic about spending more time together outside and have ventured to the park opposite the hospital.

A pure selfless act

The family are also acutely aware that for Grace to get a new heart, a family somewhere have to go through their own personal tragedy and then make the decision for their child to become a donor.

“If that day comes, it’s a pure selfless act to save others through their traffic loss and that we would be forever grateful for,” says Becci.

“You never imagine your own family could be in this position but anything we can doto raise awareness of organ donation is so important.”