Have a Heart

June 15, 2011

Brit Trogen


If you're anything like me, when you come across someone who doesn't have a pulse, the first thought that immediately comes to mind is of course: vampire. But before you whip out your cloves of garlic, ask if they're familiar with something called a ventricular assist device, or VAD. 


Researchers at the Texas Heart Institute have spent decades trying to perfect an artificial heart that can meet all the needs that organic hearts are able to accomplish over the course of a human lifetime. They musn't cause blood clots or infections, stop pumping, wear down or break. Recently, with the development of VADs, they seem to have finally created a replacement that is almost perfect... with one slight alteration. VADs have no heartbeat; they function using a rotor of blades that circulate blood in a continuous flow. Which means the patients who use them have no pulse.


Since the 1980's, VADs have been used to aid either the left or right ventricle of a heart. In 2010, VAD's got a PR boost from their use by Dick Cheney, who had one replace his left ventricle, replacing his pulse with a whirr. But by pairing two together, researchers Billy Cohn and Bud Frazier have succeeded in creating a makeshift pump device that can entirely replace a failing heart. Previously used on calf hearts, this double-VAD device has now successfully been used to save the life of a 55-year old man, who was dying from amyloidosis, with only 12 hours to live (he succumbed to the disease a month later through other organ failure, but his heart functioned perfectly.) 


This trial, performed under extenuating circumstances, has given us a glimpse into the possible future of artificial hearts; the double-VAD design has yet to find FDA approval or a manufacturer, so it will be some time before it makes its way to mainstream markets. But in the meantime, the comfort factor of living without a pulse can be addressed. 


Aside from a level of familiarity with vampires (and Dick Cheney), is there anything wrong with a pulseless existence? Could you adjust to a life that would possibly require lowered levels of exertion than a pulsed-life, as one of the benefits of a pulse is its adjustable rate? In the end, anything that brings us closer to a world without death is all good in my books. 



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