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Video: Bionic bride ‘normal’ after heart pump saves her life

  1. Transcript of: Bionic bride ‘normal’ after heart pump saves her life

    MATT LAUER, co-host: This time last year, 22-year-old Texan Ally Smith was planning her funeral. Today she's planning her wedding, thanks to doctors who implanted a mechanical device into her chest to help her failing heart . Some call it a bionic heart . In a TODAY and People magazine exclusive, here's Ally 's amazing story. In October 2006 , Ally Smith was like any other college freshman .

    Ms. ALLY SMITH: Going to school, social life , hanging out with friends.

    LAUER: Ally was an avid athlete and the picture of good health who had just met the man of her dreams.

    Ms. A. SMITH: I met Mike freshman year of college. Right off the bat I saw that he was a complete gentleman. He respected people.

    LAUER: But by the spring, Ally started feeling tired.

    Ms. A. SMITH: Dizzy all the time. Always wanting to sleep because I just felt worn out.

    LAUER: Friends and family, even Ally , chalked it up as typical college stuff until a frightening incident.

    Ms. A. SMITH: I was in a rowing competition and all of a sudden I realized that I was waking up with my team around me. They had told me that I just fell backwards and unconscious for, you know, 15, 30 seconds.

    LAUER: Doctors diagnosed dehydration until she had a follow-up appointment with her pediatrician.

    Ms. A. SMITH: He told me the same thing. `Oh, you're just dehydrated. You obviously didn't eat enough,' and I go to check out and pay and I'm waking up again. I passed out in the doctor's office.

    Ms. A. SMITH: Ally was rushed to the hospital and after intense testing, a devastating diagnosis.

    Ms. A. SMITH: She called it cardiomyopathy. I just thought it would go away. Kind of just like getting a cold, I thought it would just reverse itself.

    LAUER: Unfortunately for Ally , that was not the case. Viral cardiomyopathy is a disease that weakens the heart leading to organ failure in other parts of the body. Without a heart transplant , many do not survive. For the next two years, Ally was in and out of the hospital trying to repair her fragile heart with medicine.

    Dr. ROBERTA BOGAEV: We anticipated her life expectancy was a year without more aggressive therapy. And her chance of living one year was only 50 percent.

    LAUER: But Ally had so much to live for. A family who loved her desperately, and Mike , who loved her unconditionally.

    Ms. A. SMITH: He asked me to marry him September 23rd of 2008 . He got on his knee and, you know, with his big goofy face smile that he has.

    LAUER: A week later, Ally took a turn for the worse. Her body was shutting down. She told Mike he could have his ring back.

    Ms. A. SMITH: One thing that -- sorry -- he told me was even if I was on my death bed that he was still going to marry me.

    LAUER: Without a donor heart , Ally had run out of options, except for one, a bionic heart called the HeartMate II . It's a mechanical device which keeps the heart pumping by an external power source, giving the heart time to rest and hopefully time to heal itself. It is a grueling surgery and recovery, one that Ally almost didn't survive.

    Ms. KRISTA SMITH: I really sat there and prayed and said, `God, tell me what I'm supposed to do. Am I supposed to sit here and watch her die, or am I supposed to go home and prepare my husband for this?'

    LAUER: But doctors say through her courage, grace and determination, Ally has done more than survive, she's thriving.

    Ms. A. SMITH: This is the battery and controller to my HeartMate II . It connects through here and it right here goes through my abdomen and goes right through here into this part that goes to my pump. So it's all connected.

    Offscreen Voice: What's it sound like?

    Ms. A. SMITH: Just a hum.

    Unidentified Man: Like a hum.

    Ms. A. SMITH: It just goes mmm.

    LAUER: So now Ally has time for more important things, like planning a wedding.

    Dr. BOGAEV: We have -- we have a whole reserved row right behind her family.

    Ms. A. SMITH: Doctors and my nurses.

    Dr. BOGAEV: I mean, just thinking about it I start to cry. We never thought you'd have that day.

    Ms. A. SMITH: I know.

    LAUER: Science is pumping her heart , but love saved her life.

    Ms. A. SMITH: Mike is why I fought. And the fact that I can't leave my family. I'm not done. I'm not going anywhere. I'll fight up there and say, `You're not ready for me yet because I'm a pistol.'

    LAUER: He -- she's covering her -- his eyes because he can't see the wedding dress . Ally Smith and her fiance, Mike Babineaux , are here, along with her parents, Krista and Ronnie Smith , and Dr. Roberta Bogaev . Good morning to all of you.

    Dr. BOGAEV: Good morning.

    Ms. K. SMITH: Good morning.

    Mr. SMITH: Good morning.

    LAUER: You people don't get -- when they're watching this story, they don't see what's happening here on the couch and the tissues are going around and the tears are flowing and you're covering Mike 's eyes so he can't see the wedding dress . And are you really going to wear electric blue cowboy boots under that dress?

    Ms. A. SMITH: I wouldn't call them electric blue , but yeah, definitely blue.

    LAUER: How you feeling?

    Ms. A. SMITH: Watching that, emotional. But I'm here to do something good, so that's my -- I call it my mission, so.

    LAUER: Can you -- can you imagine if you go back to the point of this illness where you were at your worst, can -- could you ever have imagined that you'd be a month away from getting married, having planned that wedding, you'd be here on the show talking about how you are thriving?

    Ms. A. SMITH: Honestly, when I was at my worst I wasn't even thinking about that. It was -- I honestly didn't know I was going through my worst. I ended up, you know, the second -- after I had gotten home the first time and then a couple days later ending up there within I would say a couple of hours, I was no longer coherent.

    LAUER: Yeah, you were...

    Ms. A. SMITH: And that was for a couple of weeks. And it took me at least two months after I woke up to kind of realize what was going on.

    LAUER: What is your quality of life like now with this pump and the certain degree of mobility you have? What's it like?

    Ms. A. SMITH: A hundred percent better than it was four years ago. I mean, I can -- I'm normal. You know, people ask me, `can you do normal things?'

    LAUER: Are you normal? I mean, do you consider...

    Ms. A. SMITH: Oh, yeah.

    LAUER: ...yourself normal? You can do everything I can do?

    Ms. A. SMITH: I -- maybe not lifting heavy weights and running marathons, but I mean...

    LAUER: I can't do either of those things anyway. Don't worry about it.

    Ms. A. SMITH: Well, I can do normal things. I can go and I can obviously travel. I'm here, this is my first long flight.

    LAUER: Right.

    Ms. A. SMITH: But it's -- I do everything a normal person does.

    LAUER: Mike , you asked Ally to marry you when -- right when you found out she was gravely, gravely ill. I'm not going to say you're a good guy, you're clearly very much in love, though.


    LAUER: I mean, that was a hard choice for a young man.

    Mr. BABINEAUX: Yeah, it was just a lot of commitment in our relationship. We've been through some hard times , but we definitely have a lot of good times and I wanted to see it through the end, you know, all the way. And...

    Ms. A. SMITH: He wasn't going to give up on me.

    Mr. BABINEAUX: Yes. I just love her and, you know, no one in my life could ever replace her in my mind.

    LAUER: Mom and dad , you ever ask why? Why our daughter? Why -- I mean, this is not a common condition.

    Mr. SMITH: No. It's humbling experience, definitely. You know, she was a thriving young lady and, you know, she had a lot of enthusiasm and, you know, she's kind of like the alpha dog personality. And I think that got her through it. But, you know, you just never -- you never know.

    LAUER: Doctor, was there another option here for Ally at the time where it was at its worst? Was there any other way you could have saved her life other than with this pump?

    Dr. BOGAEV: No, Matt. Her heart was failing, her other organs were in jeopardy. And certainly a heart transplant was an option, but you're dependent on someone else's misfortune, and you can't pull a heart transplant off the shelf. Certainly these mechanical pumps we can now pull off the shelf and support patients.

    LAUER: Well, I -- I'm going to do this. This is the first time I've ever done this, Ally .

    Ms. A. SMITH: No, that's fine.

    LAUER: But I have a microphone here and you kind of held up that pump in the piece and showed us where exactly it is.

    Ms. A. SMITH: Yeah, I just grabbed a fluffy thing.

    LAUER: You don't have a heartbeat, is that right?

    Ms. A. SMITH: I have a heartbeat, I have a heartbeat.

    LAUER: But if I put this microphone to your chest, I'm not going to hear ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump.

    Ms. A. SMITH: Maybe a little. It depends on how -- if you're down here then no. You'll just...

    LAUER: OK, can I do this?

    Ms. A. SMITH: Oh, yeah, fine.

    LAUER: We have this mike turned on here? I just want to hear what it sounds like. I hear it in the background. If everyone's quiet you can hear it. It's kind of like wooo.

    Dr. BOGAEV: It's very quiet. When we first put the pump in Ally , she didn't have a pulse. So you couldn't feel her pulse. But now her heart 's starting to show some signs of recovery.

    LAUER: So this could be giving her heart the rest it needed to recover. And that's my...

    Ms. A. SMITH: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: ...that leads me to my next question. Is Ally going to have -- how long can she go on with this device before possibly needing a heart transplant or before going back to the power of her own heart ?

    Dr. BOGAEV: This device is the culminate of 20 years of research. So some patients have had this type of device for almost five years. And it can now support patients for five sometimes we think maybe 10 years until a heart 's available.

    LAUER: Mom, she's going to walk down the aisle in a month.

    Ms. K. SMITH: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: After all she's been through, what's that going to be like for you?

    Ms. K. SMITH: Emotional. We're all asking for waterproof makeup. It's really hard because when we went in for the -- for her pump, I mean, she sat down and said, `These are my wishes if I don't make it.' And now we're here. I mean, when your 21-year-old at that time is telling you want color casket she wants and you're saying, `No, we've got to get through this because you're getting married,' I mean, Mike 's her rock and I think that helped a lot. And prayer and our faith in God really helped us. And the doctors at the Heart Institute , Dr. Bud Frazier for all he's done to help her pull through, and Dr. Bogaev .

    LAUER: Well, Ally...

    Ms. A. SMITH: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...congratulations. Good luck in a month. You didn't see it, but the gown is beautiful. You have a stunning and...

    Mr. BABINEAUX: I've heard all about it.

    LAUER: ...fabulous bride here. Congratulations to you two.

TODAY contributor
updated 5/26/2010 10:15:42 AM ET 2010-05-26T14:15:42

Emotionally, college student Ally Smith’s heart told her to marry Mike Babineaux. But medically, it told her to push Mike away, because she wouldn’t survive to enjoy a full life with him.

But Babineaux wouldn’t take no for an answer, and next month the pair will have their dream wedding. An implanted mechanical pump that does the work of her faulty heart has led Smith to be dubbed “The Bionic Bride.”

And though they have a miracle of modern medicine to thank for making their wedding dream come true, Ally and Mike still believe it was love that conquered all.

“I just love her, and no one in my life could replace her,” Babineaux told Matt Lauer on TODAY Wednesday. “I wanted to see it through to the end, all the way.”

The attractive young couple appeared on TODAY with Ally’s parents, Ronnie and Krista Smith, as well as Ally’s cardiologist, Dr. Roberta Bogaev. Together they told a story that is equal parts gripping medical drama and the stuff of romance novels.

Dire diagnosis
All was well when college freshman Smith, a vibrant, athletic girl, met Mike Babineaux on the campus of Texas A&M in the fall of 2006. They began dating, but their relationship took an unexpected turn the following spring. Smith suffered dizzy spells and her usually abundant energy had been sapped.

“I was in a rowing competition, and all of a sudden, I realized I was waking up with my team around me,” Smith told NBC. “They had told me that I just fell backward and unconscious for, you know, 15 to 30 seconds.”

Doctors initially believed Smith had suffered from nothing more serious than dehydration, but she scheduled an appointment with her physician. He concurred with the initial finding — but Smith passed out again, this time in the doctor’s office.

She was rushed to the hospital and, after a battery of tests, got news that would turn her life upside down. She suffered from cardiomyopathy — more commonly, heart muscle disease.

“I just thought it would go away,” she said. “Kind of just like getting a cold. I thought it would reverse itself.”

Doctors implanted Ally Smith with a mechanical pump that takes over the work of her weakened heart.
Unfortunately, the prognosis wasn’t that simple. Viral cardiomyopathy is a progressive disease that weakens the heart and often leads to organ failure. A heart transplant is often the only option for survival — even with aggressive therapy, the chances of surviving a year with cardiomyopathy are only 50 percent. Worse yet, only about 5 percent of people needing heart transplants are lucky enough to get them. 

Unreturned ring
Still, Babineaux stuck by Smith through her grueling therapy, and in September 2008, as Smith says, “got on his knee and, you know, with this big goofy face,” asked her to marry him.

Smith accepted, but just a week into their engagement, her body began shutting down. It looked like Smith wouldn’t survive to see her wedding day. She tried to return her engagement ring to Babineaux, but he wouldn’t take it.

“[Mike] told me even if I was on my deathbed, he was still going to marry me,” a tearful Smith told NBC.

Time was running out for Smith, who had not been successful in gaining a donor heart. But doctors still had an option — implanting what could be called a bionic heart into Smith.

Manufactured by the Thoratec Corp., the HeartMate II is a mechanical device implanted alongside the patient’s own heart that takes over the pumping function of the weakened muscle. As it pumps up to 10 liters of blood per minute, the HeartMate essentially does the heart’s work for it, allowing it time to rest — and, hopefully, heal.

After two surgeries, Ally Smith is adjusting well to her “bionic heart.”
Still, implanting the device is major surgery, one that Smith nearly did not survive.

“When we went in for our pump, [Ally] sat down and said, ‘These are my wishes if I don’t make it,’ ” Krista Smith told Lauer on TODAY. “Your 21-year-old is telling you what color casket she wants, and you’re saying, ‘No, we’ve got to get through this because you’re getting married.’ ”

The bionic bride
Despite life-or-death moments during two surgeries to install the HeartMate (the first installation didn’t take), Smith’s body has adjusted well. Lauer held up a microphone to Smith’s abdomen, and the faint whir of the pump’s motor could be heard. Smith wears a handbag across her shoulders containing the pump’s battery, along with extra batteries in case the juice runs low.

It’s not a conventional way to live, but “I’m 100 percent better than I was a year ago,” Smith told Lauer. “I mean, I’m normal. I do everything a normal person does.”

Ally Smith with fiance Mike Babineaux on TODAY.
Including getting married. Smith says her thoughts always return to the man who wouldn’t take his engagement ring back. When Smith was at her weakest, he walked around the A&M campus carrying her textbooks and always walking ahead of her on stairway steps in case she fainted.

Her prognosis is good. Dr. Bogaev told Lauer Smith could likely survive five to 10 years with her HeartMate, buying her time for a heart transplant. Even better, Smith’s heart appears to be healing itself since it doesn’t have to work so hard, potentially eliminating the need for a transplant.

“When we first put the pump in, Ally didn’t have a pulse,” Dr. Bogaev said. “But now her heart is starting to show signs of recovery.”

And on TODAY, the young couple were looking forward to a wedding instead of a funeral. When a taped segment showed Smith modeling her wedding gown, she quickly covered her fiance’s eyes.

Lauer told Babineaux, “You didn’t see it, but the gown is beautiful. You have a strong and fabulous bride.”

And a true Texan as well: Smith plans to wear bright blue cowboy boots under her wedding gown.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints


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