Weak heart made Ho candidate for therapy
Island icon Don Ho had "an extremely weak" heart that was pumping far less blood than a healthy organ before his experimental stem cell procedure in Thailand, his supervising heart surgeon said.
Ho, 75, known for his signature tune "Tiny Bubbles," was moved out of the intensive care unit of a Bangkok hospital yesterday and into a suite at the facility. He is doing well and could even be singing again before the end of the year, said Dr. Amit Patel, a U.S. heart surgeon who oversaw the procedure in Thailand.
"His prognosis in terms of recovering from surgery, thus far, is good," Patel said. "In terms of singing, it would really be up to him. I would not be surprised he'd be able to sing by Christmas, if not before."
Patel, director of the cardiac cell therapy program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said Ho was just the 15th patient with nonischemic cardiomyopathy -- a weakened heart muscle not due to blockages in the coronary arteries -- selected for the VesCell adult stem cell therapy.
On Tuesday, Ho underwent the new treatment that has not been approved in the United States. It involves multiplying stem cells taken from his blood and injecting them into his heart muscle in hopes of strengthening the organ.
His "ejection fractions," a measurement of how well the heart pumps blood, was at 10 to 15 percent. A good heart has a rate of at least 55 to 65 percent, Patel said.
"Considering you're taking a patient with an incredibly sick heart, it went very smooth," Patel said in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh. "He had no changes in his blood pressure, oxygen level. There was no sign of bleeding problems.
"The biggest thing you always worry about with stem cells is, do they cause any irregular heart beats or anything like that, and he had none."
Ho had been categorized under the New York Heart Association Classification for heart failure as Classification III.
"These patients are very sick. They have a five-year, 50 percent mortality (rate)," Patel said.
Ho, who has entertained countless tourists over more than four decades, had a pacemaker implanted a few months ago and was admitted to a hospital in August with shortness of breath. He was treated for an abnormal heart rhythm and released after three days.
The procedure Ho underwent was developed by TheraVitae Co., which has offices in Thailand and laboratories in Israel, where Ho's stem cells were sent to be cultured for five days before being returned to Bangkok. It costs roughly $30,000 and patients are carefully screened.
Patel said Ho was not selected or given preferential treatment because he is a celebrity.
"He had the right type of heart failure. He did not have any prior heart surgery," Patel said.
Despite using medications and a pacemaker, Ho's heart problems continued. He used the stem cell therapy only as a last resort, close friends said.