555 days with an artificial heart

Without a heart to pump oxygenated blood around the body, you die pretty quickly. Transplants though, are hard to come by, which is why scientists are looking into using CRISPR to allow pigs to host human-like hearts. In the meantime, however, one 25-year-old man has proved that it’s possible to live over a year while literally heartless.

Stan Larkin went a massive 555 days wearing an ‘artificial heart’ backpack, which filled in after his ticker was removed while he awaited a transplant donor. Both he and his brother Dominique were diagnosed with familial cardiomyopathy as teenagers – a terrible condition where your heart can fail without warning.

Both siblings were on the transplant list for several years, and eventually had their hearts removed to make way for healthy donor ones. For the duration of the wait, both brothers were fitted with a 13.5 pound backpack that connects directly to the cardiovascular system and takes over where the heart leaves off. While implantable defibrillators and similar technology can assist with partial heart failure, this device – known as Syncardia – is designed to be used when both sides of the heart fail.

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While Dominique only needed the device for a couple of weeks, Stan was plugged into his 24 hours per day for 555 days, finally receiving a full transplant on 9 May 2016. Despite what Larkin describes as an “emotional rollercoaster”, he is now back to full health. “I got the transplant two weeks ago and I feel like I could take a jog as we speak. I want to thank the donor who gave themselves for me. I’d like to meet their family one day. Hopefully they’d want to meet me,” he said.

Larkin stunned doctors by being able to continue playing basketball with the device on. Personally, I’d gladly use these extenuating circumstances as a good excuse for not exercising, but Larkin is clearly made of sterner stuff, continuing to play despite having a backpack the weight of nearly four Macbook Pros strapped to his back 24 hours a day. “He really thrived on the device,” said Jonathan Haft, associate professor of cardiac surgery at the University of Michigan, who carried out his surgery. “This wasn’t made for pick-up basketball. Stan pushed the envelope with this technology.”brothers_with_artificial_hearts

They were both very, very ill when we first met them in our intensive care units,” explained Haft. “We wanted to get them heart transplants, but we didn’t think we had enough time. There’s just something about their unique anatomic situation where other technology wasn’t going to work.”

Younger brother Dominique has been with a donor heart since January 2015, and was able to explain a little of what his brother must be going through, being without the backpack for the first time. “It’s been like having a new life. You can do everything you weren’t able to do and everything you thought you would probably never be able to do again. You can live without the restrictions you had when you were sick and not have to worry about every little thing.”

For Stan, though, it’s one step at a time – he’s even staying off the basketball court for a little while. “I’ll probably run a few pick-up games, but not right away,” he told Michigan Live. “I haven’t taken a shot yet without the backpack hooked up. I just want to put the heart to use.”

Image: University of Michigan Health System

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