On March 23, 1983, Barney Clark dies 112 days after becoming the world’s first recipient of a permanent artificial heart. The 61-year-old dentist spent the last four months of his life in a hospital bed at the University of Utah Medical Center in Salt Lake City, attached to a 350-pound console that pumped air in and out of the aluminum-and-plastic implant through a system of hoses.
In the late 19th century, scientists began developing a pump to temporarily supplant heart action. In 1953, an artificial heart-lung machine was employed successfully for the first time during an operation on a human patient. In this procedure, which is still used today, the machine temporarily takes over heart and lung function, allowing doctors to operate extensively on these organs. After a few hours, however, blood becomes damaged by the pumping and oxygenation.
In the late 1960s, hope was given to patients with irreparably damaged hearts when heart-transplant operations began. However, the demand for donor’s hearts always exceeded availability, and thousands died every year while waiting for healthy hearts to become available.
On April 4, 1969, a historic operation was performed by surgeon Denton Cooley of the Texas Heart Institute on Haskell Karp, a patient whose heart was on the brink of total collapse and to whom no donor’s heart had become available. Karp was the first person in history to have his diseased heart replaced by an artificial heart. The temporary plastic-and-Dacron heart extended Karp’s life for the three days it took doctors to find him a donor’s heart. However, soon after the human heart was transplanted into his chest, he died from an infection. Seven more failed attempts were made, and many doctors lost faith in the possibility of replacing the human heart with a prosthetic substitute.
In the early 1980s, however, a pioneering new scientist resumed efforts to develop a viable artificial heart. Robert K. Jarvik had decided to study medicine and engineering after his father died of heart disease. By 1982, he was conducting animal trials at the University of Utah with his Jarvik-7 artificial heart.
On December 2, 1982, a team led by Dr. William C. DeVries implanted the Jarvik-7 into Barney Clark. Because Jarvik’s artificial heart was intended to be permanent, the Clark case drew worldwide attention. Clark spent his last 112 days in the hospital and suffered considerably from complications and the discomfort of having compressed air pumped in and out of his body. He died on March 23, 1983, from various complications. Clark’s experience left many feeling that the time of the permanent artificial heart had not yet come.
During the next decade, Jarvik and others concentrated their efforts on developing mechanical pumps to assist a diseased heart rather than replace it. These devices allow many patients to live the months or even years it takes for them to find a donor’s heart. Battery powered, these implants give heart-disease patients mobility and allow them to live relatively normal lives. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, the Jarvik-7 was used on more than 150 patients whose hearts were too damaged to be aided by the mechanical pump implant. More than half of these patients survived until they got a transplant.
In 2001, a company called AbioMed unveiled the AbioCor, the first completely self-contained replacement heart. Although patients implanted with the AbioCor have still eventually died, AbioMed has shown it is possible to live as long as 500 days with the implant. Scientists continue to look for ways to improve artificial hearts for long-term use.