By Michael J. Neill
September 14, 1992 12:00 PM

MIKE TEMPLETON LIVES FOR VISITS with his family. Sometimes they take place in the public corridors of St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, sometimes in the cafeteria—and starting this month, at locations within an hour of the hospital. The visits are always bittersweet and always end the same way: Templeton’s wife, Tara, 34, and his daughters, Shana, 7, and Jenna, 4, return to their suburban home north of the city, while he returns to his room in the 10th-floor transplant ward.

In fact, Templeton, 34, is lucky to be alive. Near death from a heart ailment, he had an experimental heart pump implanted in his abdomen in September of last year. But the tradeoff had a sleep price. In exchange for the operation and the $49,000 pump, Templeton was bound by the stipulations of the pump’s developers and the Food and Drug Administration that he stay in the hospital until he receive a heart transplant. And no one is saying how long that might be. “It’s a crazy rule,” Templeton says. “I don’t think they know how healthy I am.”

The requirement, a precaution in case the pump failed, was almost academic: No one expected a recipient of the device to get well enough to leave the hospital. So for a year Templeton has remained a virtual prisoner there. He celebrated his birthday at St. Luke’s, as well as Christmas. Although the FDA and the developer have finally acknowledged Templeton’s robust condition and allowed him to go out on day passes, he is still awaiting permission to live at home until a heart becomes available.

It was two years ago when Templeton, a pipeline technician, was told he had idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a heart ailment of unknown origin. When the condition worsened a year later, he was rushed to a hospital. His heart stopped beating several times, but doctors managed to shock it back into action. “His heart was three or four times its normal size,” says Dr. O.H. Frazier, Templeton’s surgeon and chief of cardiopulmonary transplantation at the Texas Heart Institute, the world famous research and treatment center affiliated with St. Luke’s. “It was like a basketball inside his chest.”

With Templeton hanging on precariously, Frazier told him of the experimental pump—called HeartMate and developed by Thermo Cardiosystems Inc. of Woburn, Mass.—that would help his diseased heart circulate blood until he could get a transplant. The FDA had given approval for the Heart Institute to implant five of the battery-driven pumps only as a last resort. Patients had to be within approximately two days of death, be out of medical options and be willing to accept a transplant as soon as a donor was available. The first pump had gone to a 47-year-old man who died within two weeks of the implant as a result of internal bleeding from the surgery. Templeton was told he could have the second pump. “I told them no a couple of times,” he says. “I was scared.” Finally he had the operation—and made a spectacular recovery. He was out of intensive care in nine days and in five weeks was outpacing Dr. Frazier on a treadmill.

Since then he has gotten to know St. Luke’s—and the people there—very well. He visits other transplant patients, including Elbert Lee Lewis, 49, who received a pump just five months ago. And to relieve his boredom, Templeton now works as a hospital volunteer, repairing computers and installing software programs. His work, he says, “is kind of therapeutic. It helps me, because it gets me off the transplant floor.”

The impact on his family has been enormous. Wife Tara struggles to raise their two daughters without a father at home, and without his $40,000 salary. To help keep up with the bills, she recently took a secretarial job at a health-management company close to St. Luke’s. Mike’s younger brother, Rich, 32, quit his job as a deliveryman in Reno and moved to a 24-foot camping trailer on a hospital parking space he rents for $65 a month. Thirteen years ago, Mike had temporarily dropped out of school to help nurse Rich back to health after a serious motorcycle accident. Rich, who keeps his brother company and helps the family out whenever he can, is repaying the debt. “For his kids’ sake, I don’t want to see him give up,” he says.

Templeton doesn’t know how long he will have to wait for a donor heart. Last year, 5,386 Americans needed heart transplants; 2,126 got them, and more than 800 people died waiting. But he remains optimistic. “I have a feeling that it’s getting closer,” he says. “I look forward to going home, to being with my family and watching my kids grow up—I hope.”