How does an artificial heart work? Who was the first recipient?

The human heart is a vital organ that acts like an engine that keeps everything. It pumps around 2,000 gallons of blood a day, maintaining circulations and oxygen throughout the lungs and body. However, if it’s not taken care of properly, it will deteriorate like an engine, pump less effectively, and break down, resulting in heart failure.

For severe heart failure patients, the only resort they can cling on to was a heart transplant. However, there are only nearly 2,000 heart transplants done in the United States each year, leaving many patients dying without having the chance to find a donor’s heart and undergo surgery.

After years of thorough research and experimentation, the first artificial heart was created and patented in the 1950s. It gave hope to the medical practitioners and patients. However, it was only in 1982 when a functioning artificial heart was successfully placed in a human patient.

Barney Clark was the first recipient of the first artificial heart on December 2, 1982. The 61-year old Seattle dentist was suffering from an advanced stage of cardiomyopathy, which progressively weakens the heart muscles.

Truth to be told, Clark was 11 years older than the accepted age for a heart transplant. His only resort then to survive was Dr. Robert Jarvik’s mechanical heart.

The Jarvik-7, named from its inventor, was composed of two plastic pumps implanted inside the patient’s chest. The artificial organ is then powered with compressed air through hoses. Such components then required patients to be clasped near a console about the weight and size of a refrigerator. The mechanical heart was able to pump blood to the lungs and out to the body around 40-120 times per minute.

Clark was well-aware of what he was in for, and he had a strong will to live. He qualified for the surgery, given that his condition was fatal and that there are no other treatment options available. On the day of the operation, Clark was at the brink of his death, with his heart only functioning a fifth of its full capacity.

Surgeons made history as they removed the weakened ventricles of Clark’s heart and replaced it with the Jarvik-7. The mechanical organ was then attached to the remaining chambers of his natural heart. Air hoses were implanted under his rib cage then linked to the external air compressor.

The surgery was a success. Clark was regarded as a hero as being the first human to receive an artificial heart. But, it was never easy as he weathered through hard days. His skin color would often change from blue to pink, which was caused by fluctuations in oxygen. Only a week after surgery, he also experienced seizures, which his doctors said was due to the imbalance of salts and fluids.

Yet, the extension of his life through the artificial heart brought good memories too. He was able to celebrate his 39th wedding anniversary with his wife and, of course, be with his children also.

Quite suddenly, however, 112 days after the surgery, Clark passed away at the age of 62. His cause of death was stated to be a ‘circulatory collapse and multi-organ system failure.’

Though he only lived for nearly four months, he undeniably left a legacy. In his interview after the surgery, Clark said he agreed on the operation as he wanted to help in the advancement of medical science. True enough, his will to pioneer the first artificial heart enticed research and breakthrough in the medical field today.

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