Mechanical support for failing hearts is not a new idea. Size, however, matters. In 1966, Michael DeBakey, MD, successfully implanted the first device to replace the pumping action on the left side of the heart. Now, at medical centers like Stanford, the LVAD, or left ventricular assist device, about 3 inches long, is a workhorse that enables many people with heart disease to live a normal life. Sure, if you have an LVAD implanted in your chest, you have to wear a power pack and a reserve power pack outside your body, but most find that burden acceptable. Your heart also remains in your body. If the whole heart is failing, that’s another matter.
In 1969, Denton Cooley, MD, removed Haskell Karp’s diseased heart and replaced it with an artificial one intended only to keep the 47-year-old alive for the three days it took to find an appropriate human heart for transplant. He died two days after that transplant. The heart was driven by an air pump the size of a washing machine. By 1983, when William DeVries, MD, put an artificial heart in Barney Clark’s chest, it was because Clark was too sick for a transplant. The pump supporting the artificial heart was still the size of a washing machine. Clark would never be able to leave his hospital room even to walk down a hospital hallway. He died 112 days later.
A little over a year ago, Stanford cardiovascular surgeons removed the heart of chess teacher Vaness French. French had lived with heart disease for decades, altering his diet, upping his exercise, doing everything he could until one summer day in 2013, when he went into cardiac arrest at a baseball game. Luckily, he was with a friend who knew CPR and kept French alive. In the months before, his Stanford cardiologist, Dipanjee Banerjee, MD, had fine-tuned French’s medications and ablation had been tried to stabilize the atrial fibrillation French experienced frequently. Now, the only option to keep him alive was a human heart transplant or an artificial heart.
French's survival until a transplant was available was seriously in doubt. French agreed to let a team of Stanford surgeons, led by Richard Ha, MD, implant an artificial one. Remarkably, in footage shot just two weeks after that implantation of the total artificial heart, French is up and around, albeit a bit slowly. The support machine for the artificial heart is now small and lightweight enough so he could leave his room, with a bit of help, of course. Two weeks later, even before he received a support machine so small and portable he would have been allowed to return home, the right human heart came French’s way. In the recently-released video above you can see an artificial heart implantation procedure - and hear how it changed French’s life.
Previously: “Liberated from LVAD support”: One patient’s story and Dick Cheney on his heart transplant: "It's the gift of life itself"