The Artificial Heart Project


Okay, my readers, I am switching gears, and talking for the first time about my experience as a nurse on the artificial heart team. I kept a journal which I have never looked at which is tucked away somewhere, and I will unearth it for reference. I do this with some trepidation, because the true story has never been told, to the best of my knowledge, but, being one of the nurses in the room where the patient was taken after the surgery, and all the days thereafter, I guess I have a unique perspective.

When we (the nurses) were first told that we were to prepare for this experimental surgery, it was prior to Bill DeVries, MD even coming to Louisville. He was still in Salt Lake City where his very first artificial heart was performed on a guy by the name of Barney Clark. Although medical people and lay people everywhere followed the story, it never occurred to me that the second surgery would take place in Audubon Hospital in Louisville and that I would be on the team.

There was much anticipation (and fear) when the program was announced and the open house was slated, which the team would attend. The fear for all of us was that this had only been performed once, and we had never been exposed to anything like this. We also had not a clue what this Dr. DeVries would be like.

The thought of taking care of a patient who had no heart, but a device called the Jarvick 7 was daunting. We were quite accustomed to watching the patient’s heart on a monitor and knowing when he was in trouble and intervention on our part was required. But…this guy would have no heart rhythm. He would have wave forms that showed a foreign looking rhythm that we would be required to interpret. Not only would he be completely dependent on the exterior “heart” but the drive lines that entered his left side that hooked him to it had to be tended carefully. There was a redundant system that was available to us in the event that the heart failed. In that case, we had to undo the two “hoses” that entered his left chest, and hook them accurately to the redundant smaller machine. During the time of this switchover, the patient had no functioning “heart”.

There was great secrecy surrounding the operation. It was known to the news that the project would be done but there was great secrecy as to who the patient would be. We were inundated with press, not only locally, but from around the world. We were suddenly catapulted to the top of the news world.

Classes were of little value because it had only been done once before. There were really no instructors. Just Bill DeVries and Rob Jarvick the inventor of the heart itself. Many of you probably have seen Rob lately in an ad on TV advertising Lipitor. He’s rowing a shell. I was surprised to see how much older he looked than he did then. So young, we all were.

All of us part of an experiment involving a human being and having no clue as to how successful any of us would be. Having a lot of publicity surrounding us, and even a Pulitzer Prize winner living in the unit with his camera was different than anything any of us had experienced before.

I longed to tell my family who the patient was, but we were held to such strict secrecy that we spoke in low voices even to each other prior to the surgery. I was called into the head nurse’s office about three weeks before the surgery and told that I was to be one of the nurses on the case from day one. I wanted to throw up. There was excitement but great trepidation as well. I felt wholly inadequate to the task.

At any rate, the “team” was chosen, and we went to a social meeting arranged at the hospital when Dr. Devries arrived in town. I remember the first time I saw him. He was tall, very tall, gangly, and not so extroverted as I expected. In fact, I think he was a bit overwhelmed at the adulation and attention which was overdone, I though, just as if a movie star had entered the room. I remember the preparations prior to his coming that included not having coffee served, because he was a Mormon, and someone was in charge of finding out what Mormons can and can’t eat. This is just a small thing I recall. I remember watching him from my vantage point across the room prior to meeting him and drawing some impressions of him. A God-like image didn’t suit him at all, and all the fawning over him made him uncomfortable. I remember thinking he was no older than my brothers. I think I made a decision even then that I was not going to treat him like some kind of idol, but to try to establish a relationship that would include a very down-to-earth rapport, and that my natural humor would serve me well. This was true, and I came to know him well very quickly. He became “Bill” on his request and there were no lines of authority drawn by him between doctor, nurse, pump technician, or anyone else. We were all in it together and became a family quickly.

On the day that DeVries did Bill Schroeder, I stood with the rest of my receiving team in the door of the CCU and watched a wall of “green” scrubs coming down the hall from surgery. I remember telling my mother that it felt like the song, “Ode to Joy” should break out for this momentous occasion. Things would begin to change very quickly from awe-struck to the cold reality of living in a different world.

Thus, I begin my series on what the real story is, and hope I don’t get sued.


Best to all my Waynedale friends,

The Waynedale News Staff
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