SALT LAKE CITY — Some people wear their heart on their sleeve, but 54-year-old Bill Boren wears part of his over his left ear.
Boren's unique situation accommodates his need to swim, one of the only forms of exercise he can tolerate. Doctors decided that a traditional surgery on his failing heart, which would leave Boren with an electrical port coming from his stomach, would not be the best option for someone who gets into the pool often.
So, with special approval from the FDA, Boren became the first person in North America to be fitted with an essentially waterproof heart pump, with the power cord tunneled up into his skull and exiting behind his left ear — more conveniently connecting his pump to the 8-pound, portable battery pack that now empowers his body.
"There are days I wake up and say, 'Man, am I really hooked to a battery? This is what's keeping me alive?' It surprises me sometimes," said Boren, a divorced father of four children, ages 6 to 24.
"They are my life. They are my heroes. I couldn't live without them," he said of his children.
A form of muscular dystrophy that began affecting Boren in his 20s took its toll on not only the larger skeletal muscles of his body, but also his heart.
Boren, originally a Liberty resident, put off the major surgery and his heart slowly deteriorated until doctors at the U. — who have been performing heart transplants and other complex heart procedures successfully since 1982 — finally convinced him it was time.
The surgery to position a Left Ventricular Assist Device in Boren's weakened heart was performed through an approximately 8-inch incision under Boren's left rib cage in March. Similar procedures had been performed dozens of times in Europe, but never before in America and only one other person has ever been recorded as taking the device under the water, like Boren now tries to do at least twice a week.
"I love life," Boren said, fighting back tears during a press conference Thursday at the I. J. and Jeanne Wagner Jewish Community Center. "I owed it to myself and my family to try to keep myself alive."
"I came pretty close to not being there a couple times," he said. "It really is a miracle."
Boren, who spends most of his time in a wheelchair, lifted himself out of the chair for his regularly scheduled physical therapy in the outdoor pool, which is helping him to regain strength in his muscles. The JCC provided Boren a free membership and built a wheelchair ramp into the pool for him.
"It makes my body feel better to be in the water," Boren said. He tries to gather enough energy to swim — a simple backstroke and other exercises that utilize his arms and legs in the water — at least 30 minutes at a time. Afterward, it takes about a day to recover.
He's hoping to someday walk again, said Lisa Carter, a Rehab Without Walls therapist who comes to the pool with Boren twice a week.
"The amount of work and effort that he's put back into this is really inspirational," said Dr. Craig Selzman, a cardiothoracic surgeon at University Hospital who met Boren in 2009.
"Here's a guy, who when he's lying in bed, he can't even have the strength to scratch his nose, but he has the strength to smile," he said of Boren. "We knew we had a winner, if we could just get him through it and we'd do it all over again for sure."
Selzman said the U. has performed about 1,100 heart transplants, but Boren wasn't a good enough candidate for the procedure. However, Boren will be re-evaluated as the years go on, to determine if he's capable of enduring a transplant someday.
"We could do the same thing that we did with Bill, but a lot of other patients wouldn't be here today to talk about it," Selzman said, adding that Boren's exemplary attitude and perspective on life got him to where he is.
"I know this is new territory out there, but I think that's one reason why I did it," Boren said. "I believe in technology. I believe that it is here for a reason. You can take that any way you want, intellectually, spiritually or however you want to take it, but I believe that the knowledge is here and it is for our use, and that's why I did it."