How Two Men Lived Without Hearts

By Simon Griffin on Wednesday, November 20, 2013
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“I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.” —Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

In A Nutshell

Doctors at the Texas Heart Institution have developed a new type of heart replacement vastly superior to anything else that’s been used previously. The new device is smaller, cheaper, longer-lasting, more reliable and safer, with only one slight drawback: Those who use it have no pulse or heartbeat.

The Whole Bushel

The machine, which had previously only been tested on 39 calves, was officially unveiled in 2011 when 55-year-old Craig Lewis was on the brink of death and had his heart replaced. Lewis’s heart was failing because of a build-up of harmful proteins, caused by a condition known as cardiac amyloidosis. Unfortunately, his condition was so bad that standard procedures wouldn’t have been able to help him. Many devices that are designed to take over some work for the human heart are only short-term, or can only help one side of the heart. Devices that help both sides are often too big for the patient (women in particular). Not only were both sides of Lewis’s heart damaged, but the left side was in such a bad state that no commonly used implant could help it. Had it not been for this new technology, the only other option would have been for Lewis to get to the back of the queue of over 100,000 people waiting for about 2,200 hearts.

It’s pretty clear that this new device, developed by Dr. Billy Cohn and Dr. O.H. Frazier, has overcome some pretty big obstacles already. But the advantages don’t stop there. Another enormous problem with technology up until this point was the lifespan of the devices, and understandably so. You wouldn’t expect to be able to turn on your tap and have it run for years at a time, and a heart replacement isn’t much better: They rarely last over two years, largely because they have to beat 100,000 times a day, which adds up to 35 million times in a year. The device implanted in Mr. Lewis has tremendously increased longevity as, instead of actually pumping like preceding technology, it uses its rotating parts to keep the blood in constant, perpetual circulation. Not only does this mean the device can last longer, it also greatly reduces the chance of blood clots, a serious problem with previous implants.

It is this design, the fact that the blood is always flowing and never sitting still, that results in the lack of a heartbeat or pulse. If you were to listen with a stethoscope, you’d only hear a hum. Drawbacks to the device remain to be seen, such as whether or not perpetually moving blood could cause other health problems to manifest. The creators even talk about possible psychological drawbacks of living without a heartbeat. Unfortunately, Craig Lewis only had this device for five weeks before passing away. Doctors stressed that the device was working perfectly, but underlying health issues prompted them to turn it off and allow him to pass away more peacefully. Another man named Jakub Halik, from the Czech Republic, survived six months with the device in 2012, before succumbing to liver failure.

Show Me The Proof

Texas Man Pioneers Use of Beatless Heart, the Wave of the Future
Huffington Post: Jakub Halik, Czech Man, Has Lived Without A Real Heart For Six Months