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Utah doctor makes history with the artifical heart! The story of Robert K. Jarvik

Utah doctor Robert K. Jarvik invented the artifical heart and saved many lives.

Robert Koffler Jarvik, inventor of the first permanently-implantable artificial heart, was born in Michigan on May 11, 1946. He demonstrated his mechanical aptitude early, having invented such useful devices as a surgical stapler and other medical tools when he was just a teenager.

By the mid-70s, several artificial heart designs had already come into existence. In the mid-1950s, Dr. Paul Winchell patented an artificial heart. In 1957, a team of scientists, led by Willem Kolff, a Dutch-born physician, tested the model in animals to identify problems. Another model tested in 1969 by a team led by the Texas Heart Institutes Denton Cooley kept a human patient alive for more than sixty hours. Physicians and scientists then began to consider the possibility of creating a permanent, rather than temporary, implantable heart model.

In 1982, the first patient, Seattle dentist Barney Clark, lived for 112 days after the Jarvik 7 was implanted into his chest cavity during an operation that last 7 1/2 hours. Surgeon William DeVries of the University of Utah performed the surgery. Clark, who for various medical reasons had not been a candidate for a transplant operation, was never able to leave the hospital. The system was open to infection, so Clark, and subsequent Jarvik 7 recipients, got sick. Patients had to be kept on blood thinners to prevent clots and strokes. Clark died from multiple organ failure, but the Jarvik 7 was still beating when he passed away.

By the end of the '80s, about 70 Jarvik devices had been implanted to sustain patients waiting for transplants. Since then, development of an improved artificial heart has continued. Today, devices made by companies such as Thoratec, Medquest, Baxter Novacor, Abiomed, and others have assisted thousands with heart disease. Scientists continue to work on designs for an artificial heart that could provide a realistic, permanent option for survival. Jarvik is now working on the Jarvik 2000, a thumb-sized heart pump. To find out more about the artifical heart and other medical devices invented in Utah visit the Utah Curiosities and Inventions Exhibit at the Utah Museum of Art and History.

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