Monday, June 13, 2016

The Man Who Had No Heart

Stan Larkin lived for 555 without a heart.
Image: Shutterstock
It’s a story that sounds like science fiction, but it’s true: a Michigan man lived for 555 days without a heart. Stan Larkin, a 25-year-old from Ypsilanti, had his real heart removed in November of 2014, but there wasn’t a heart to replace it. Instead, Larkin received an artificial heart, called a “Freedom Driver,” whose power source he carried with him in a backpack. The artificial heart allowed him to live a mostly normal life at home so he didn’t have to wait in the hospital for a transplant.

Larkin didn’t know anything was wrong with his heart until nine years ago. He suddenly collapsed while playing basketball, and doctors discovered he had a genetic heart condition called arrhythmogenic dysplasia, which causes arrhythmias and failure on both sides of the heart. This condition occurs when heart muscles stretch and enlarge at least one heart chamber, so blood can’t pump the way it’s supposed to.

Larkin’s brother, Dominque, also has the condition. But while Dominique only had to use his artificial heart for six weeks before he received a transplant, Larkin had to wait much longer. Doctors decided that because Larkin was doing so well with the machine he could leave the hospital with it to see if he could live an ordinary life.

“I was shocked when the doctors started telling me that I could live without a heart in my body and that a machine was going to be my heart. Just think about it—a machine,” Larkin said. The machine Larkin took home with him included chambers and four valves, like an organic heart. Two tubes that exited Larkin’s body under his ribcage connected the device to a 13-pound power source called the Freedom Driver, which was carried in the backpack.

The machine both powered the artificial heart and delivered compressed air into its ventricles so that blood could be pumped through the rest of Larkin’s body. Larkin says that the device felt just like a real heart. “It’s just in a bag with tubes coming out of you, but other than that, it feels real,” he said. The device had to be replaced about ten times because Larkin was living such an active life.

Larkin was able to have a successful heart transplant 555 days since the Freedom Driver was implanted. He is doing well and recovering quickly, and he’s glad to be healthy again. Larkin’s situation is very promising for other people waiting for transplants.

“I think there’s good science here, and there have been really great advancements in this area,” said Dr. Laman Gray, chair of cardiovascular surgery at Jewish Hospital at the University of Louisville. “We’re making great progress, and people are living normal lives. There’s definitely a place for total artificial hearts and a need for them.”