Doctors at the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center recently announced one of the more shocking breakthroughs in recent medical science: a man successfully lived a year without a heart in his body. Instead, he wore an artificial heart on his back.

A Michigan man recently underwent a successful year-long trial for the new external artificial heart known appropriately as a Syncardia.” Stan Larkin, age 25, was diagnosed with familial cardiomyopathy along with his brother. This heart disease causes the muscle walls of the heart to deteriorate, which prevents them from contracting and pumping blood. The disease is among the leading causes of sudden death for athletes.

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Stan Larkin posing with his Syncardia total artificial heart.

Larkin was close to death’s door when doctors decided to test the new Syncardia artificial heart on him. The device is known as a “total artificial heart,” or TAH. There are two tubes running from the patient's body into the artificial heart; one for incoming blood and one for outgoing blood. The TAH has an electric pump powered by two lithium-ion batteries that are re-charged using standard electrical outlets or even the cigarette lighter adaptors in cars.

According to a page for patients on the Syncardia website, the effects of the artificial heart are immediate:

Once implanted, the SynCardia Total Artificial Heart provides immediate, safe blood flow of up to 9.5 L/min through each ventricle. Soon after the surgery, doctors and family members often watch patients turn from sickly gray to a healthier pink as blood flow is restored to their body and their vital organs.

Larkin’s recovery was profound enough that he was even able to resume playing basketball, all the while wearing his heart on his back.

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The Syncardia total artificial heart with backpack battery system

Currently, the organ donor system in the United States has a severe backlog, causing some patients to wait months or even years for a donor. Patients like Larkin who suffer from severe cardiac defects often have be hospitalized for the entire duration of their transplant wait-list time. Devices such as the Syncardia have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life for individuals waiting for organ transplants.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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