Chess coach Van French attacks the game with both intelligence and heart. "It's equivalent to what an athlete would feel. When you know you have your opponent on the ropes in boxing, that is chess as well," he says.
Just two years ago French coached high school players from the poverty stricken valley town of Mendota to a state championship. But his next move wouldn't decide the outcome of a match, but potentially whether he lived or died.
"On June 15th, my heart went into cardiac arrest," French remembers.
Dipanjan Banerjee, M.D., is medical director of Mechanical Circulatory Support at Stanford Hospital. He was part of the team monitoring French's accelerating decline.
"Really the writing was on the wall when we saw the echocardiogram. We knew his heart was not going to get better," Banerjee recalls. "If anything it was going to get worse."
Since there was no donor heart immediately available, surgeons at Stanford implanted French with a total artificial heart. It's a bridge device to keep him alive until a donor is located. While earlier implants have been available to assist patients with left ventricle failure, the total artificial heart replaces both ventricles.
"We remove about 80 percent of the heart, the ventricles mostly. And then once we remove it, we sew on these, for lack of a better term, 'quick connects' that allow us to attach the chambers," explains Richard Ha, M.D., the surgical director of Mechanical Circulatory Support.
But what's improved dramatically according to Ha is the technology that drives the implant. French is currently recovering with the help of a full-sized floor version, but in a matter of weeks, he's scheduled to return home to Fresno with a portable pumping system, known as the Freedom Driver. At just more than 13 pounds, it fits in a backpack.
"That's amazing," says Ha. "To go home without a heart, and just have a total artificial heart and have it be reliable."
French says the device will allow him to do his familiar routine, such as going to the grocery store, walking the dog and, of course, to return to the game he loves, pouring his new temporary heart into mentoring the chess team.
"It would be wonderful because I could then pick up my life and move on, and do what I want to do," he says.
Surgeons say one advantage of implanting the device relatively early is to allow the patient to remain strong and healthy enough to recover from an eventual heart transplant.
Written and produced by Tim Didion