'82 heart implant sparked progress

U. team implanted Jarvik-7 in Barney Clark 25 years ago

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2007 12:13 a.m. MST

Countless calves and sheep, pounds of plastic and Dacron, miles of tubing, a hot tub and hundreds of bright minds and willing hands figuratively lined the road on which Barney Clark made his journey into medical history on Dec. 1, 1982 — as the first human to receive a total artificial heart, with FDA approval.

A quarter century has passed since a University of Utah team, led by Dr. William DeVries, implanted the Jarvik-7 artificial heart in the failing body of the Seattle dentist, so the anniversary is a fitting time to look at what led to the groundbreaking surgery and what has followed.

Later this week, U. officials and the Utah Artificial Heart Institute will host a two-day symposium at Huntsman Cancer Institute to mark the milestone. Many of the biggest names in heart repair — mechanical and medicinal — will gather Friday and Saturday to compare notes, celebrate Clark's legacy and discuss the future of cardiovascular treatment in a world where heart disease is the leading cause of death.

Barney Clark was born and educated in Provo, a Utah boy who moved to Seattle to study dentistry and stayed until the failure of his heart brought him back to seek care, first at LDS Hospital and later in the U.'s artificial heart program. He'd married UnaLoy Mason and they had three grown children, Stephen, Gary and Karen.

He consulted a young doctor at LDS Hospital, Jeffrey Anderson, now associate chief of cardiology at Intermountain Medical Center. LDS was just starting up a heart transplant program.

Initially, Clark was not a candidate for a human heart transplant. He was over 60 and had other medical problems. So Anderson managed his heart disease with medical therapy and clinical trials, "the latest and greatest at the time," he says today. That worked for a couple of years, then Clark began to fail rapidly.

About that time, Anderson had what he now calls a "key encounter in a hot tub" at the U. fieldhouse, where he and DeVries had each been working out. They chatted about the U's artificial heart program. Everyone knew by then that the U. was planning to implant someone; they were looking for the right candidate.

Anderson told DeVries about Clark, a man he recalls as "sophisticated medically and willing to be a guinea pig." Anderson sent Clark to see DeVries, and Clark's journey into history began.

"Barney was a real pioneer. He realized that with a first one, a lot can go wrong. He was willing to try," Anderson says.

Anderson was out of town when Clark's heart began the decline that would speed up the timeline for the historic surgery. He flew in during a mammoth snowstorm and went straight to the U., where he was also on the faculty, to watch the operation.

"Gosh, I wonder if this is going to make the local papers tomorrow," he remembers wondering.

Even in decline, Clark was a large man, about 200 pounds and over 6 feet tall, blessed with a chest that could accommodate what was a large, multichamber device.

He was also well-versed in the medical realities, aware that he would for his lifetime be tethered to mechanical out-of-body support by two, six-foot lines. It was hoped that with time that support would become more portable than the washer-size machine that powered his heart.

He was to be the first human recipient of a heart that had been used countless times in sheep and cows with funny names like "Tennyson" and "Abebe" and "Ted E. Bear," each with its own story.

One, Fernando, had three hearts, living 44 days on the Jarvik-7 before bridging to a transplant from his twin. He died 22 months later, not of complications from the hearts but from blood vessel problems caused by the repeated insertion of catheters to monitor his condition. Fernando proved that the mechanical heart could be a bridge to transplant — that the transplanted heart would grow with him.

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