The inside story behind the long quest to build an artificial human heart.
Mimi Swartz, journalist and executive editor at Texas Monthly. Author of "Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart" and co-author of "Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron." (@mimiswartz)
Dr. O.H. "Bud" Frazier, heart surgeon and pioneering developer of the artificial heart. Co-director of Cardiovascular Surgery Research at the Texas Heart Institute.
From The Reading List
Excerpt from "Ticker" by Mimi Swartz
The door to the lab had a window covered with a venetian blind, a nod to security along with the key card Bud swiped to let himself in. The place wasn’t much to look at, which made it camera ready for PETA membership drives. The floor was linoleum, and the tile walls were that sorry shade of prison green. The animals in metal stanchions—like modern-day stocks—raised their heads to look at Bud: one goat, one cow. At his arrival they blinked and chewed the hay at their feet, paying him little mind.
He had told his mother, a schoolteacher, that he’d decided to become a doctor one night while she was cooking him dinner. He was in from Austin and the University of Texas, back home in the small town of Stephenville. She kept stirring a pot on the stove while he explained his choice; she didn’t stop to look at him. “Well,” she said, when he finished, “I think you should do what you want, but I never knew you to much like to kill things.” Well, “killing things” wasn’t his goal as a doctor, but being an attentive son, Bud intuited her meaning: with a mother’s impeccable memory, she was referencing that time he was eight years old and his friend Butch Henry had shot a rabbit in the brush. Bud raced to the site and found a mother rabbit dying, her unborn babies tumbling out of her belly where the shotgun pellets had torn her open. Bud gathered up the tiny bundle of kits, raced home and tried to save them, but he was too late.
His life’s through line became saving the unsavable. This made Bud not just famous and respected, but beloved, and not just in Houston but anywhere he had taken care of sick people around the world. But he still had one goal to accomplish before he hung it up: Bud wanted to see a working artificial heart become a reality, a total replacement that could be implanted and then forgotten, as his friendly rival, another famous heart surgeon, Robert Jarvik liked to say. And, finally, Bud felt that he was close.
In the next room, Bud found the calf. He was a Corriente, a smallish breed descended from the Spanish. His coat was a reddish brown, soft and thick; in a different life he would have spent his youth avoiding cowboys in a roping competition at a rodeo. Instead, he was standing up in his small stall, wires and tubes running in and out of his chest every which way, hooked up to enough monitors bet- ter suited to send him to the moon. Bud scratched the calf’s forehead and thought, as he often did, that they were such sweet animals.
Nearby, on a pile of old hospital blankets, was Daniel Timms, PhD, who had been sleeping there all night. A youthful-looking thirty-five-year-old biomedical engineer from Brisbane, Australia, Timms was a slight, tightly wound man with piercing blue eyes and a snaggletooth that, depending on which nurse you asked, made him more or less movie-star handsome. His short brown hair was often tousled, and he always seemed in need of a shave. Daniel wasn’t known around the THI for his sense of humor, but the rumors of his genius gave him a pass.
The calf shifted its weight and Daniel’s eyes followed, watching the animal’s chest move in and out. Then, reflexively, Daniel’s eyes moved to the monitor. It registered the calf’s vital signs as completely normal.
Or rather, completely normal considering that yesterday, in an eight-hour operation, Drs. Frazier and Cohn had sliced out the calf’s heart and replaced it with Daniel Timms’ invention, a device smaller than a tennis ball, that, once stitched in place, took over all the functions of a normal heart. Except, that is, for one thing: the calf had no detectable pulse. One small titanium disc spinning in its housing—at four thousand times a minute—was the only thing keeping this calf alive.
Reprinted from TICKER: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart © 2018 by Mimi Swartz. To be published by Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, on August 7.
To poets, novelists and most people, the heart is seen as the gateway to the soul, the symbol of love and empathy. To pioneering heart surgeons, it's just a pump. If pumps can be fixed or replaced, why not hearts? Heart disease kills more people around the world than all cancers combined. More than 26 million Americans currently have heart disease. But fixes take innovation, creativity and risk.
This hour, On Point: the medical trailblazers who changed how we view and treat the heart.
— Eric Westervelt
This program aired on August 8, 2018.