Modern medicine has given us everything from new vaccines to protect us from deadly diseases to ground-breaking cancer treatments in recent years.
It’s given us hope on numerous occasions, such as when doctors unveiled a machine in 2011 that could allow a human to live without a heart, one of the body’s most vital organs.
Two doctors at the Texas Heart Institute developed a device that used whirling rotors to pump blood around the body without a heartbeat after decades of trial and error among surgeons desperately trying to create a machine that wouldn’t break down or cause blood clots and infections.
Dr. Billy Cohn and Dr. Buz Frazier first tested the concept on Abigail, an eight-month-old calf who had her heart removed and replaced with two centrifugal pumps that circulated the blood through her.
“By every metric we have to analyse patients, she’s not living,” Cohn told NPR.
“But here you can see she’s a vigorous, happy, playful calf licking”
After practicing on 38 calves, Cohn and Frazier moved on to human trials, choosing Craig Lewis, a 55-year-old man with amyloidosis, a rare autoimmune disease that causes abnormal protein build-up and, as a result, rapid heart, kidney, and liver failure.
Lewis’ heart had deteriorated to the point where doctors estimated he had about 12 hours to live, prompting his wife Linda to suggest something drastic.
“He wanted to live, and we didn’t want to lose him,” his wife Linda said.
“You never know how much time you have, but it was worth it.”
She went to Cohn and Frazier in March 2011, and they removed her husband’s heart and replaced it with an artificial one.
“I listened and it was a hum, which is amazing,” Linda said. He wasn’t breathing and didn’t have a pulse.”
She said her husband, who worked for the city of Houston and was in charge of maintaining the city’s vast system of wastewater pumps, would have appreciated the pulseless heart, which Cohn explained was made of “Dacron on the inside and fiberglass impregnated in silicone on the outside.”
“There’s a moderate amount of homemade stuff on here.”
According to the doctors, the continuous-flow pump should last longer and cause fewer problems than other artificial hearts.
“We see pulsatile circulation in all animals, insects, fish, reptiles, and certainly all mammals,” Cohn added.
“As a result, all of the early research and efforts were focused on developing pulsatile pumps.”
The only reason blood must be pumped in a rhythm rather than continuously is because of the heart tissue.
“The pulsatility of the flow is critical for the heart, as it can obtain nourishment only between heartbeats,” Cohn continued.
“If you remove that from the system, none of the other organs seem to care much.”
Lewis awoke and began to recover following the procedure, and is now capable of speaking and sitting up in a chair.
However, as the disease attacked his liver and kidneys, his condition began to deteriorate, and he died in April of that year.
He did, however, live for more than a month with the pulseless heart, according to his doctors, who said the pumps were in perfect working order.