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Writing about historic implant was heartwarming experience

Writing about historic implant was heartwarming experience

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 10:29 a.m. MDT

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The night of Dec. 1, 1982, was made for flannel nighties, with a heavy snowstorm putting on a show that was too late for Thanksgiving and too early for Christmas. I put my nightie on, hoping for a good night's sleep before heading to the University of Utah early the next morning for the much-anticipated implant of an artificial heart in the chest of Seattle dentist Barney Clark.
About 9 p.m., a phone call from the U. medical center public relations department led to a swift swap of the flannel nightie for more conventional wear suitable for a wintry nighttime drive to the U.
Clark's tenuous grip on life was quickly fading and the surgery had been hastened to intercede before it was too late. The protocol approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the procedure required a patient nearing death for whom no other alternatives remained.
As my little Ford Escort slithered and slid up 100 South toward the medical center, I came up behind a small blue pickup truck also struggling and trying to get a grip on the snow-covered street. When we both arrived in the medical center's parking lot, Dr. Chase N. Peterson, then-U. vice president for health sciences and official spokesman for the implant, exited the pickup and greeted me, and we walked into the hospital together.
Artificial heart recipient Barney Clark chats with surgeon William DeVries three days after implant. (Deseret Morning News Archives) Artificial heart recipient Barney Clark chats with surgeon William DeVries three days after implant. (Deseret Morning News Archives)
In the weeks to come, Peterson was going to get a lesson in meeting the dozen diverse needs of the media, which were at that moment collecting in a corner of the hospital's cafeteria.
The avid newsgatherers ran the gamut, from Dr. Larry Altman, a physician/journalist and writer for the New York Times, who could ask the salient medical questions, to an eager National Enquirer scribe whose main concern was the color of Dr. Clark's pajamas. Most of us fell into the middle tier — workaday reporters who had spent varying amounts of time before the implant trying to learn what we could about the procedure so we could accurately pass information on to the public.
This was the event we'd been looking forward to for months. Since U. officials had announced that an implant was pending, the artificial heart had become the story that never quit.
It was a journalist's dream. Fascinating, colorful people at all levels of the team. A few "family squabbles" about whether or not the U. should be involved in such an undertaking. The ethical questions surrounding the removal of a beating heart and replacing it with a complex apparatus that would forever doom the recipients, at least the first of them, to a life limited by several hundred pounds of complex equipment.
There was the long search for the proper candidate, along with the stories of several willing persons who in no way met the criteria — such as the Utah State Prison inmate who saw life with a man-made heart and its bulky support system as a better alternative than life in prison. Or Dale Lott, the Florida man who hired a high-profile lawyer to try to force the U. to consider him for the surgery.
Now, with a patient they considered the ideal candidate, it was happening. The U. team was at work on a higher floor of the hospital, while the members of the media bided their time by conjecturing on the progress of the procedure ("Do you think the real heart is out now?" "Wonder how long this is going to take.") There was a sense of cordial companionship and shared anticipation as we waited. And waited. A few short briefings during the long night kept the media on their toes while waiting for the big announcement. I knitted (Christmas was only weeks away, and for me knitting and Christmas are synonymous) and chatted with a Washington Post reporter who had left a couple of little boys at home to make the trip to Utah.
At 5 a.m. on Dec. 2, Peterson brought the word, and I swapped my knitting needles for a pen.
The artificial heart had been sustaining Clark's life for some 50 minutes at that point. The surgery appeared to be a rousing success. The media corner of the cafeteria was galvanized in that peculiar burst of adrenaline-mediated action that only a good story can generate in a mob of reporters.
My deadline was less than two hours away. My car was snowed in in the medical center parking lot. I hitched a ride from one of our photographers and hit the newsroom running. We had several pages of background information all ready to go, and a fair number of my much-appreciated and admired Deseret News fellows had taken care of a dozen details to flesh out our stories.
Later that day, I rode a bus home, where I could recruit a family member to help me retrieve my car. Several people on the bus had the Deseret News open and were apparently engrossed in what they were reading. Forgive me a little moment of pride. How had I managed to become even a peripheral part of such a momentous moment in science?
The rosy reports of the first few days slipped into a succession of problems.
Clark's lungs couldn't handle the improved blood pressure and developed leaks that had to be repaired. On day 6, he had seizures. A malfunction of the artificial heart required fixing. As the days went on, there were reports that Clark was depressed and was ready to give up the experiment. A debilitating decline led to the decision to turn the key that kept the pump operating.
Clark had lived 112 days with a mechanical heart.
So 25 years have passed. Where are the tens of thousands of patients who, the U. team enthusiastically predicted, would be enjoying an extended life because such implants — to be vastly improved, of course — were providing a substitute for their worn-out hearts?
Some would say the science failed. I say it served a very useful purpose.
Though long-term life with an artificial heart no longer seems feasible, its use as a bridge to transplant has preserved life for many. The research took a sharp turn toward developing other devices, such as the left ventricular assist device, that prolongs life for many more.
The artificial heart wasn't the last word but was certainly an important chapter in the history of medical science's quest for cures to the most common cause of death in modern man.
I'm glad I was there.


E-mail: tvanleer@desnews.com

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