U remembers landmark heart surgery

Barney Clark’s rapidly failing heart led doctors to push up his artificial heart transplant surgery.

Critics argued that the surgery had only worked on animals before and was too new to be used on a human.

Although the surgery, performed at the U, gave Clark only another three-and-a-half months to live, members of the medical community still consider it a success 25 years later.

The U’s Heart Institute commemorated the 25th anniversary of the surgery by hosting a symposium about artificial hearts last Friday and Saturday. The event featured lectures about past, present and future work in artificial heart surgery. Surgeons and doctors from all around the United States came to discuss artificial heart transplantation.

Before 1982, the artificial heart had only been implanted in animals. Willem Kolff, Robert Jarvik and other members of the U’s artificial heart program first started working together on the artificial heart in 1967 at Kolff’s farm.

“Many of our first attempts weren’t successful,” said Theodore Stanley, a professor of anesthesiology at the U. “We’ve improved in so many ways since 1967 when we first started working with artificial organs at the University of Utah.”

The U’s involvement in artificial heart research was led by Kolff, who came to the U to head the division of artificial organs.

William Devries joined Kolff’s artificial heart surgery team to perform experiments on animals and test complications resulting from the surgery. When the FDA gave the team approval to implant the Jarvik-7 heart in humans, Devries and five other medical personnel chose 66-year-old Barney Clark to be the first recipient of the artificial heart.

The Jarvik-7 heart was developed by Jarvik, who improved upon previous artificial heart models to design the Jarvik-7 after graduating from the U in 1976. The heart was tested hundreds of thousands of times on animals before Clark’s surgery.

Don Olsen, who heads the Utah Artificial Heart Institute, remembers working with members of the U’s artificial heart team on the surgery.

“Taking a human being, putting them on a heart-lung machine during surgery and cutting the thick natural heart out before putting in the artificial one was an emotionally high experience,” he said.

The U limited its involvement with artificial heart surgery following the controversy that surrounded Clark’s quick death, Olsen said. Clark died from multiple organ failure, but skeptics said the surgery was not ready to be performed on humans. Kolff and Jarvik both left the U for other work.

Olsen said that further experiments on animals and improvements in artificial heart technology later made the procedure more acceptable.

Research on artificial hearts in Utah continues today through efforts by the heart institute and research and surgery done at LDS Hospital.

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