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

Barney Clark

The world’s first successful mechanical heart began beating in a human chest in December 1982. The recipient was Barney Clark (photo, left), a 61-year-old dentist, whose own heart was pumping just one-fifth of the blood that it should. As Clark’s heart began to beat irregularly, physicians decided it was time to try the Jarvik-7 mechanical heart, which had been tested only on animals.

The Jarvik-7 (picture, below) is a plastic pump that fits inside the patient’s chest. The heart is powered with compressed air supplied by hoses that pass through the patient’s chest. Surgeons made a history as they cut away the exhausted ventricles of Barney Clark’s heart. The Jarvik-7 was then attached directly to the remaining upper chambers of Clark’s natural heart. Air hoses were passed under the rib cage and connected to the external pump. The artificial ventricles pumped blood to the lungs and out into the body. After a 7-hour operation, Barney Clark awoke to the rhythmic click of the first artificial heart implanted in a human.
Clark and his physicians were ecstatic, but soon the disadvantages of the mechanical heart became obvious. Clark never could move far from the 170-kilogram equipment that powered and controlled his heart. The air tubes inserted into his chest exposed his body to the constant risk of infection. Soon he began to suffer from kidney failure. The mechanical heart battered his blood so badly that regular transfusions were required. Doctors admitted that the mechanical heart was a temporary solution. However, when Barney Clark died after 112 days on the mechanical heart, doctors hailed him as a medical pioneer.

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