Dr. Willem Kolff’s Artificial Heart

Linda Sillitoe
History of Salt Lake County

For some time the University of Utah Medical School had conducted energetic and innovative research into transplants, prostheses, and artificial organs under the direction of Dr. Willem Kolff. As quickly as the Federal Drug Administration approved the device at the end of 1982, a carefully-assembled team of surgeons and technicians removed a human heart and implanted an artificial one in its place. Dr. Barney Clark, a dentist from Seattle, Washington, was so close to dying from heart failure that he was rushed into surgery ahead of schedule. By the time the sun rose, Clark had begun living his 112 days of borrowed time.

Optimism prevailed as the plastic heart beat, for more than 35,000 hearts were needed for transplants every year in the United States alone, and only two thousand donor hearts became available. Scientists and doctors hoped that, at the least, the artificial heart could keep patients alive long enough to receive transplants; at most, it might replace transplants altogether. In the glare of national and local publicity, surgeons William DeVries and Lyle Joyce became virtual celebrities, as did Dr. Robert Jarvik, designer of the Jarvik-7 heart, which improved upon earlier models by Dr. Clifford Kwan-Gett and Donald Lyman.

Two days after the implant, Clark returned to surgery, where doctors stapled his leaking lungs. Seizures struck Clark on 7 December, and he never fully recovered from their effects. Additional surgeries to fix a broken valve on the heart and to stop nosebleeds allowed him to move into a private room where he and his wife, Una Loy Clark, celebrated their thirty-ninth wedding anniversary and began to discuss going home. Two weeks later, however, Clark developed problems, and whole body systems began to fail. He died the night of 23 March.

The optimism following the surgery deflated into discussions of ethics, patient care, grandstanding, and finances. Both DeVries and Jarvik left the University of Utah, even as controversy rose around the Jarvik-7’s clinical use and the ownership of its patents. Symbion, marketers for the Jarvik-7, went out of business after Jarvik was fired in 1987; the federal government filed a criminal complaint against the company in 1994, claiming it had filed false reports. Despite continued implants, criticism grew in the medical community that the Jarvik-7 was not sophisticated enough for human use, and in 1990 the FDA withdrew its approval.

While the future envisioned upon the night the artificial heart first beat did not arrive, 160 artificial hearts of the Utah type had ticked temporarily in human chests by 1992. Many of the principals of the first implant celebrated its tenth anniversary in Salt Lake City. During his speech, Jarvik whipped the Jarvik-2000 heart from beneath his jacket to describe how this palm-sized model could be slipped into a diseased heart through a ventricle. He predicted that widespread usage of it remained the solution to heart disease.

In 1995 the artificial heart beat again in Salt Lake City, implanted 12 April at LDS Hospital in the chest of a fifty-six-year-old Idaho man, as a part of the U.T.A.H. Cardiac Transplant program. The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed Kolff, by then retired. “It’s high time the artificial heart comes back to Utah,” the doctor said. “I’m absolutely delighted and I hope this will be the first of a series of patients that will be delegated to Utah because it was here that the artificial heart was born.”