AUSTIN (KXAN) – It’s been three years now since surgeons began using a new heart pump inside patients’ bodies and they couldn’t be happier with the results.

The first HeartMate II™ ventricular assistive devices, or VAD s, began to be used at Seton Hospital in 2008, to keep patients alive until they could get a heart transplant. Two years later the same device was approved for use in patients who either didn’t want a transplant or who were not eligible for one. In both cases, surgeons are grinning.

“The technology has advanced so much that now we’re able to do this and put this in people,” said Dr. William Kessler. “It was considered space-age a decade ago.”

Since then, the size of the VADs has decreased markedly, and unlike the earliest versions, the devices are not small enough to be inserted in the body. A control unit worn in a fanny pack powers the machine, helping a diseased heart do its job.

That kind of help is now saving the life of Larry Lippe, 63, an air conditioning mechanic who has been fighting heart disease for 18 years.

“I could only go just a very short ways walking, and then I have to just sit down and get my breath,” he said.

It wasn’t just the physical ailment that was taking a toll on Lippe.

“Sometimes you want to just sit there and cry,” he said. “Emotionally, it will depress you pretty bad sometimes. You’ve got to work on that.”

Then last August, the man almost died. Medications kept him going another five months, but when they failed, Lippe was at death’s door.

Tuesday, Feb. 1, surgeons stuck a HeartMate II in his abdomen and connected it to his heart.

“I think it’s running about six liters a minute of blood through it right now, but I can’t tell it’s there,” said Lippe.

In Lippe’s case, the VAD will keep him alive until he can get a heart transplant.

“Donor waiting times are just so long,” said Seton’s VAD outreach coordinator Erin August. “It used to be an average of four to six months, but now some of our folks have been waiting almost two years.”

In the past, many of those patients would have died before a donor heart became available. Keeping them alive, of course, makes the waiting list longer than ever, but that list is designed to keep those most in need at the top. Furthermore, some of the patients who would have needed a transplant find they can manage perfectly well with the VAD alone.

“Right now, the longest living patient in the United States is over six years on the HeartMate II,” said August. “We have people here at Seton Medical Center that have been on their HeartMate IIs over two years. They’re doing fine. They go on vacations; they fly in airplanes. They go to Florida, Vegas, wherever they want to go. They can drive a car. We have several people that have returned to work.”

“They allow people to go and do what they need to do, to see their grandkids, live and see their children grow up and get married and graduate from college,” said Kessler. “It’s a fantastic thing.”

Even more refinements in ventricular assistive devices are in the pipeline, meaning a brighter future for thousands of people like Larry Lippe.