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Priscilla 'Prissy' Benoit


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Heart Patient on 'Miracle Workers' Dies

by Lynn Elber

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Priscilla 'Prissy' Benoit

A woman whose fight against heart failure was chronicled for ABC's reality series "Miracle Workers" died of complications following the last-ditch use of an experimental artificial heart pump. Her story will be shown on Monday's episode of "Miracle Workers," with an audience advisory signaling the unusual outcome for a program that typically delivers help and happy endings for the seriously ill.

Priscilla 'Prissy' Benoit, 56, of Lake Charles, Louisiana, whose heart was severely damaged by chemotherapy for breast cancer, received the titanium Jarvik pump last fall. She died on Wednesday, March 22 at a Houston hospital after a series of setbacks, including a stroke and pneumonia.

Dr. Billy Cohn, who is regularly featured on the series and already was treating Benoit when she agreed to be filmed, said the pump represented her only chance for survival. Its use for Benoit required U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. She consented to the operation after other treatments either proved ineffective or inappropriate, Cohn said. A heart transplant, for example, was ruled out because of her relatively recent cancer.

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Dr. Billy Cohn

"She was enthusiastic (about the pump) from the start, as was her husband," Cohn said in an interview this week. "But I think it was because she realized she was dying and there was really no other option." Her treatment was not altered because of the TV series, Cohn said.

The decision to show the episode came after Benoit's husband of 14 years, Jerry Primeaux, gave his approval, ABC and the series' producers said. "I want the episode to air. Prissy would want it to air," Primeaux said in a statement released through the network.

"I still have faith in the Jarvik pump," Primeaux added. "It kept my Prissy with me for a little longer. I still have faith in all those doctors. We knew exactly what we were getting into. We knew there could be complications. I would like this episode to be a tribute to Priscilla and her courage and her fight."

Dr. Cohn said he agreed with the decision to tell her story. Monday's episode also features the case of a 4-year-old boy who was born with an incomplete heart and required surgery. "We want to portray medicine as it really is," Cohn said in an interview. "Despite the name, 'Miracle Workers,' we are people applying technology to the best of our ability, and sometimes things don't work out."

David Garfinkle and Jay Renfroe, executive producers for the series, said they felt a responsibility to air Benoit's battle. She is last shown at home in early March, appearing to have made significant progress.

"Our hope is that people will see an incredibly courageous woman and her husband who went through a difficult period," Garfinkle said, and that viewers will realize both the power and limitations of modern medicine.

Her death is explained on-camera by Cohn. She died at the Texas Heart Institute, part of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, where Cohn is a staff surgeon.

"The big ethical question is, is this somehow unseemly to do?" said Robert Thompson of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "I'd have reservations if it were a member of my family, but she clearly wanted to be part of this," as did her husband.

The episode marks an unusual step for reality shows that offer help ranging from a makeover to a new house to good health, Thompson said. "Miracle Workers" is disproving the idea that "by being tapped by a reality TV show, somehow everything is going to be all better," he said.

Benoit had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and then again in 2004, receiving courses of chemotherapy and radiation. One of the chemotherapy agents ultimately left her with a severely scarred heart, which Cohn called an occasional complication.

In August 2005, her Lake Charles physician found symptoms of heart failure and referred her to the Texas Heart Institute, where a defibrillator and a continuous drip of medicine to improve her heart action were installed.

Benoit began going into heart failure despite increased doses of the medicine, Cohn said. She was ineligible for a heart transplant because the drugs required to prevent rejection of the new organ could allow her cancer to recur, he said.

After presenting Benoit's case at a medical conference it was decided that the Jarvik pump was the best answer, Cohn said. Pumps have been used to keep patients alive until a heart is available, but Benoit's would have to be in place longer.

Because of that and because of her small size, Cohn and his institute partner, Dr. O.H. Frazier, decided on a Jarvik model that was more compact and whose engineering had proven especially durable. "She wasn't ready to give up. Very bravely, she and her husband said that's what they wanted to do," Cohn said.

Frazier was the first physician to implant the pump as a permanent measure, in a British man who is living with it more than five years later. Because the device is being studied in the United States as a bridge to heart transplantation, the FDA had to agree to its use for Benoit despite her ineligibility for a new heart.

The pump was successfully installed last September 29, with Benoit the first post-chemotherapy patient to receive it, Cohn said. The device was created by Dr. Robert Jarvik, who also invented the first permanently implantable artificial heart.

Most of the medical costs were paid for by her husband's health insurance, the show's producers said. It was unclear if Primeaux or the show would handle the uncovered expenses.

Although Benoit recovered enough to resume daily activities, including shopping trips and even a visit to a Mardi Gras parade, she suffered an intermittent series of life-threatening problems. Among these were bleeding in the brain, a stroke and finally the pneumonia and sepsis, a blood infection. She managed to rebound after all but the last set of complications, Cohn said.

When the sepsis set in, her husband told the doctor that he and his wife, now unconscious, had earlier discussed the fact her struggle might be at an end. "It's time to call this," Cohn recalled Primeaux telling him. The pump was turned off and Benoit died within 30 seconds.

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