By criteria doctors conventionally use to analyze patients, Craig Lewis was dead. He had no heartbeat, no pulse, his EKG was flatlined. Yet he left the hospital and returned home to his wife.
Drs. Billy Cohn and Bud Frazier from the Texas Heart Institute had deemed the condition of Lewis’ heart to be so dire from amyloidosis, a rare blood condition in which amyloid protein builds up in organs causing them to fail, that he would die within hours if they didn’t do something. That ‘something’ was to cut out the heart entirely and replace it with a centrifugal pump. Centrifugal pumps are used to pump water through pipe systems, Lewis’ would pump blood through his veins and arteries. The daring procedure was performed in March of last year. Cohn and Frazier first replaced the hearts of 50 calves before trying the procedure with a human. Following surgery, Lewis’ wife put her head to his chest. Instead of a heartbeat she heard the continuous whirring of rotor blades. Unfortunately, a new heart was just one of Lewis’ impending needs. While the pump performed as hoped, the amyloidosis continued its attack on Lewis’ liver and kidneys and he died in April.
The medical journey was captured by filmmakers Jeremy Yaches and Jeremiah Zagar in their short film documentary “Heart Stop Beating.” It’s a chilling depiction of two doctors seeing through an audacious idea.
The pump isn’t a technological breakthrough, but it is a break with current technology. Ventricular assist devices (VADs) like the Jarvik 2000 are being used by hundreds of people all over the world. Like Lewis’ pump, the Jarvik doesn’t beat. A rotor pumps the blood through. But the Jarvik is only meant to aid the heart’s lower chamber, the ventricle, do its normal job of pumping blood. Patients with the pump still have a pulse because the rotor blade action is timed to the normal beating of the ventricle, thus blood flow is still pulsatile. Lewis’ pump, on the other hand, isn’t an assist device – it’s a replacement. By adding two VADs instead of one – one circulates blood to and from the lungs, the other to and from the rest of the body – any amount of original heart tissue is simply not needed.
Nor is a heartbeat.