Justin Ryder has battled heart problems nearly all his adult life.

But after multiple surgeries, the 35-year-old Las Vegas, Nev., resident finally has a ticker that works - SynCardia's temporary Total Artificial Heart.

Running out of options with his patched-up natural heart, Ryder had an artificial one implanted in early December at the University of Arizona Medical Center. It keeps him going, literally, while he awaits a donor heart.

It's been a tough run for Ryder, an athletic father of three who had surgery for an enlarged heart at age 18.

His natural heart's last gasp began in 2002, when he he ran out of breath while tossing a football outside a friend's home during the Super Bowl.

"When we were done, we walked back up the hill, and I couldn't really make it up, and I said, 'something's not right,' " said Ryder, who used to play semi-pro arena football, hockey and other sports.

After testing, his cardiologist told him his organs were starting to fail. They were being starved for blood because of leaky heart valves.

It was an unwelcome déjà vu for Ryder, who had undergone surgery to fix an enlarged heart discovered when he tried to join the Navy. That surgery, to replace his failed valves with metal mechanical ones, went well, and he recovered.

"I was fine after that, I was doing my thing, I started playing football again," said Ryder.

But by 2004, he began to feel bad again, and testing determined his heart's capacity, known as its ejection factor, was about 15 percent, compared with the normal 50 to 60 percent. He was fitted with a pacemaker and a defibrillator.

Ryder was evaluated for a heart transplant, and in 2006 he moved with his family to Boston, where much of his extended family lived.

He got on the transplant list there, and waited. But Boston wasn't working out financially, so he moved back to Las Vegas and was transferred to the list of the transplant program in California. He was mistakenly dropped from the list, then put back on.

Finally, a childhood friend who was a medical resident at UAMC told him about the heart program there, and since he had a place to stay and his father-in-law lived in Huachuca City, he decide to move here.

Under the care of UAMC cardiologist Dr. Cristina Smith, he was put on an intravenous drip of dobutamine, a heart stimulant.

Smith told him about SynCardia's Total Artificial Heart, and after researching the heart extensively, he and his family decided he should get one.

Rich Smith, co-founder and chief technical officer of SynCardia, said Ryder's mechanical valves ruled out other, single-ventricle heart-assist devices.

Ryder, whose wife is expecting the couple's fourth child next month, had the artificial heart implanted Dec. 3 and was walking on his own a few days later. He has been growing stronger as he awaits a transplant - this time on the top-level Status 1A list.

The heart and its portable Freedom driver allow him to exercise, as the pneumatic driver beats his plastic heart 134 times per minute with an audible, fairly loud pocketa-pocketa-pocketa cadence.

"It wasn't long before I was outside playing soccer with my daughters" on the hospital grounds, Ryder said.

The Freedom driver includes a backup driver and two batteries, so one can be removed for charging without Ryder's heart skipping a beat. Both he and his mother, Sharon, have been trained to change batteries and, if necessary, the whole driver with a provided spare.

While Ryder could go home to Las Vegas, that would mean dropping to a lower 1B transplant status.

"Obviously, the sooner I get home, the better," he said.

But even though he's high on the list, there's no telling when he may get a donor heart.

"Unfortunately, somebody has to pass away, and they have to be an organ donor. And a lot of people aren't organ donors - a lot of people don't know anything about organ donation."

All the hospital down time got him thinking about ways to change that. He's started a website, second-chance-foundation.org, to help educate people about the urgent shortage of donor organs and to assist patients with expenses. He plans to create a nonprofit to accept donations and perhaps get grants.

"I'm fortunate I have great insurance. … If I didn't have that, I'd really be struggling," said Ryder, who has been unable to work in his property-maintenance job while awaiting a transplant.

Medicare pays for 80 percent of his treatment, while supplemental insurance pays the rest.

"I know they have organ-donation organizations already, but the more information you can get out there to people, the better," he said.

Meanwhile, he's getting used to living on a mechanical heart. And as for that incessant pocketa-pocketa-pocketa, he's gotten used to it, too.

"If it stopped, I wouldn't know it," he said, "because I'd be dead."

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

Senior reporter covering business and technology for the Arizona Daily Star/Tucson.com