Of all the organs in the human body, the heart is arguably the most important, well-known, and worried about. Not only is the heart the vital electro-mechanical pump that moves about 2,000 gallons of our blood every day, but for centuries it’s been symbolic of the seat of emotion, reason, and life itself for many religions, cultures, and philosophies.
Yet, despite our long familiarity with the heart, there is still so much we don’t know about it. The various ailments that plague the heart are still some of our most common chronic diseases, and a fully-functional, artificial replacement is considered to be a holy grail of medical technology.
Mimi Swartz, a reporter at Texas Monthly, has chronicled the long (and still ongoing) history of the artificial heart in her upcoming book, Ticker. It’s a fascinating account that Swartz has skillfully written in an engaging style that keeps readers eager to learn more. Drama, suspense, and characters with egos bigger than their heads – it’s all there to show that the artificial heart is no ordinary medical device.
For example, it was interesting to read that, especially back in the 70’s when development first started, medical research was far different than it is now. Swartz recounts numerous experiments and tests that would probably get researchers in trouble with both the FDA and PETA today. It was a “wild west” in many ways, but it almost always seemed to result in improved technology.
Other parts of Ticker that we found particularly entertaining were the roles that seemingly random people played in the development of the artificial heart. Swartz recounts the story of how cardiologist Bud Frazier came up with improvements for a pump after witnessing a drunk winning bar bets holding his breath underwater longer than anyone – the drunk happened to be a TB patient who would secretly open a tube connected to his chest that would allow him to breathe as he kept his head in a bucket of water. Swartz’s research included a Medgadget post we wrote back in 2005, which she credits in the book, about the concept of an artificial heart developed by Paul Winchell (the voice of Tigger), Dr. Henry Heimlich (who invented the famous maneuver for choking victims), and indirectly, Ricardo Montalban (Star Trek‘s Khan, Fantasy Island‘s Mr. Rourke). She also shares of the role that Houston’s furniture king, “Mattress Mack,” played in keeping the artificial heart project from going broke.
If there is any small part of Ticker to criticize, it might be that there are so many characters in the story; we often had trouble remembering who was who. But it goes to show that the development of the artificial heart was not the work on a single person; it was a group effort, and at times, a fierce competition among rival doctors, and each character played an important role in its development.
Finally, it’s notable to consider that the story of Ticker is not finished. Companies mentioned in the book, such as Abiomed and Thoratec (now owned by Abbott), are still actively developing artificial hearts and LVAD’s (left ventricular assist devices). The book ends at present-day, where researchers are still searching for viable means of keeping artificial hearts powered, and heart transplant lists are growing longer than ever. It is, hence, a story that Medgadget looks forward to continuing to tell.
With our new understanding and appreciation for the artificial heart’s colorful history, we wanted to learn more about how Ticker came about. Mimi was kind enough to share with us a little more about what she learned in the process of writing the book.