World's First Heartless Human Was Able To Live For A Month Without A Pulse

By maks in Health and Fitness On 4th March 2024
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Remarkably, he became the world's first individual to live for an extended period without a pulse.

It's a common belief that the heart is indispensable to human life, given its critical role in circulating blood, and thereby oxygen, to every part of our body. 

Yet, this incredible story challenges that notion.

In 2011, the field of modern medicine saw a remarkable innovation when Dr. Billy Cohn and Dr. Buz Frazier at the Texas Heart Institute devised a device capable of pumping blood throughout the human body using spinning rotors, effectively bypassing the need for a heartbeat.

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The genesis of this groundbreaking idea was tested on an eight-month-old calf named Abigail.

Abigail's heart was replaced with two centrifugal pumps that circulated blood throughout her body, effectively keeping her alive without a heart.

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Reflecting on this, Dr. Cohn shared with NPR: "By every metric we have to analyse patients, she's not living."

"But here you can see she's a vigorous, happy, playful calf licking my hand."

Credit: Focus Forward Films

After refining their technique on 38 calves, Dr. Cohn and Dr. Frazier decided it was time to move to human trials.

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They chose Craig Lewis, a 55-year-old man suffering from amyloidosis, an autoimmune disease that leads to the accumulation of abnormal proteins and causes rapid failure of the heart, kidneys, and liver.

Lewis' condition had deteriorated to the point where doctors estimated he had about 12 hours left to live.

That's when his wife, Linda, proposed a radical solution.

"He wanted to live, and we didn't want to lose him. You never know how much time you have, but it was worth it," Linda expressed, encapsulating the desperate hope that led them to Dr. Cohn and Dr. Frazier in March 2011.

Credit: Focus Forward Films

The doctors proceeded to remove Lewis' failing heart and replace it with their artificial device.

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Linda recalled the surreal experience of listening to her husband's chest after the procedure, saying: "I listened and it was a hum, which is amazing. He didn't have a pulse." 

She believed her husband, who worked maintaining Houston's extensive wastewater pump system, would have found a certain poetry in the makeshift, pulseless heart, a blend of "Dacron on the inside and fiberglass impregnated in silicone on the outside" with "a moderate amount of homemade stuff on here," as Dr. Cohn described.

The doctors anticipated that the continuous-flow pump would outlast traditional artificial hearts and pose fewer complications. 

Dr. Cohn explained, "We look at all the animals, insects, fish, reptiles and certainly all mammals, and see a pulsatile circulation," highlighting that initial research focused on creating pulsatile pumps to mimic the natural heartbeat.

Credit: Texas Heart Institute

However, they discovered that the organs don't require pulsatility, except for the heart itself, which needs it to receive nourishment between beats.

Lewis awoke and began to recuperate following the surgery. 

Despite a promising start, his condition eventually worsened as the amyloidosis attacked his liver and kidneys.

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He passed away in April, just over a month after receiving the artificial heart.

His doctors reported that the pumps functioned flawlessly during that time, marking a significant, though bittersweet, success in medical innovation.