I vividly remember December 2, 1982. Barney Clark was the first successful recipient of an artificial heart. His crawling life-back-into-death experience lasted a gruesome 112 days. We all tried to be happy at the prospect of a fake heart beating to give us life, but watching Barney, in his wheelchair, dead-in-the-eyes and comatose-of-expression gave us all pause about the meaning of being human. Are we our hearts? Does our mind define us, or are we merely a beating muscle mindlessly flexing and reacting to electric impulses?
Last night, I read an amazing article published in Popular Science detailing an all-new heart replacement called the HeartMate IIs — and its hallmark construction is that it gives recipients no heartbeat or pulse because the device is not a pump, but rather a sophisticated, spinning, Archimedes‘ Screw:
The HeartMate II was an Archimedes’ screw with magnets implanted in the axle and an electric coil in the cylindrical case surrounding it—the saltshaker-shaped device that Cohn had placed in my hands. A charge zipped around the coil, drawing the screw along at 8,000 to 12,000 revolutions per minute. The axle spun on a synthetic-ruby bearing, lubricated by the blood itself. Connected to a portable battery, it let patients live fairly normal lives and was designed to stay in place forever, not merely as a “bridge to transplant.” Patients’ own hearts still worked; the continuous flow of the pump just helped things along.
So the newest artificial heart doesn’t imitate the cardiac muscle at all. Instead, it whirs like a little propeller, pushing blood through the body at a steady rate. After 500 million years of evolution accustoming the human body to blood moving through us in spurts, a pulse may not be necessary. That, in any case, is the point of view of the 50-odd calves, and no fewer than three human beings, who have gotten along just fine with their blood coursing through them as evenly as Freon through an air conditioner.
“His giant heartbeat,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of God early in the past century, “is diverted in us into little pulses.” Nowadays, maybe not.
I find this new heart something magical and magnificent. Modern medicine is a salve against everything that ails us, and the notion of having these Archimedes’ Hearts routinely replacing organic failures in the next decade or so is too stunning to consider.
How many other ancient SuperGenius innovations will be transmogrified to influence our future selves? We can only hope the past inspires us into goodness and doesn’t haunt us with realized weaponizations that will destroy the world in spite of our spinning screw hearts.