Spokane man living on a Total Artificial Heart

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane offers some of the greatest health care the world has to offer, and one local man now has a second shot at life, because of it.

Greg Soumokil is a family man with a big heart, but earlier this year, that heart was hanging on by a thread. Thanks to the remarkable team at Providence Sacred Heart, he was given a very unique option.

Soumokil’s journey began a few years before this, and he remembers it vividly.

“I can remember paramedics saying, ‘Your heart is not very happy with you,’” Soumokil told us.

His heart was racing at nearly 200 beats per minute and medical providers were struggling to slow it down. Doctors ran through a variety of options — a pacemaker, defibrillator, balloon pump — none of which turned out to be the fix he needed. Following these efforts, Soumokil was sent over to the heart failure team.

“It didn’t really click to me so much at that point,” said Soumokil.

“Our last choice was kind of either pull the plug or go for the Total Artificial Heart,” Soumokil told us. For this fighter though, giving up was not an option. He was admitted on February 8th and went for that procedure 20 days later.

Despite world-class surgery leading up to this point, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Cristy Smith admits it was nerve-wracking walking into that eight-hour surgery.

“I was excited because I was grateful that we have this opportunity here at this institution to actually be able to use this device,” said Smith.

Soumokil made it through the surgery successfully, and today, he’s one of only 28 people in the world who have a Total Artificial Heart. That artificial heart, at just 13-pounds, is his lifeline. He explained, “They call it the freedom driver. Without this freedom driver that keeps my heart pumping — it’s a pneumatic pump — none of this would be possible. I’m walking, talking proof that a person can live with a Total Artificial Heart here.”

This is not the end of Soumokil’s journey. Most patients have the artificial heart for a few years before getting a heart transplant. Dr. Smith hopes the heart that fits him right comes through in the foreseeable future.

“He could have this for years if he needs to, but I don’t want him to have it for that long,” said Smith. “I want him to get his heart.”

When that time comes, he’ll be looking at a more long-term solution. Dr. Smith said, ” I tell our patients all the time, that right heart is waiting for you. It’s out there. There are some hearts that were meant to go around twice. We’ll find the right one and when it’s meant to be, it will happen.”

After everything Soumokil has made it through, he’s willing to wait.

“Good things come in time. That’s all I can say,” said Dr. Smith. “I’ve been doing this since 2003 and I can tell you, I’ve never once had a patient not get that transplant heart come through, right when they needed it.”

His fortitude has taken him this far, and he knows his attitude played a big role in his success.

“I had the fight in me and that’s the only thing that kept me alive. It gave me a second chance here at life,” said Soumokil. Dr. Smith recognizes it too. She said, “Greg has been a success because of how much stamina and grit he has. Just personal desire to get better.”

Soumokil left the hospital on Monday, May 17th, after a long, 97-day stay with that crucial piece of equipment strapped to his back. Hospital departures are special for most, but for Soumokil and his team, this one’s extraordinary. Soumokil shared his motivation saying, “My grandkids. They’re a big part of this. That’s what’s kept my drive going.”

The thing he’s looking forward to most with his newfound freedom? Soumokil shared, “I just love burning gas. I get enjoyment seeing the kids jump off the boat, riding on the intertube, that gives me the most enjoyment out of everything.” He’s ready to take his “freedom-rider” boating with family. “Boat belongs to them. I’m just the driver.”