Try to wrap your head around this: What's alive, but has no heartbeat, no pulse, and a flat-line on a monitor? No, it's not a riddle, it's a brand new leap in heart replacement technology that still has me scratching my head. In fact, if you tuned into NPR yesterday, you might have also had your mind blown by the latest invention to keep people alive who have suffered significant damage to their heart.
It's a heart replacement, without the heart.
Dr. Billy Cohn and Dr. Bud Frazier of the Texas Heart Institute developed a whirring device that pumps blood continuously to keep you alive when your heart stops working. It's based on the single ventricular assist device (like the one Dick Cheney has to keep him alive), except they doubled it to replace the entire heart. What happens next is the blood flows through your body, you stay alive, but you have absolutely no pulse or heartbeat. WEIRD. But genius.
You see, the heart beats because that's the way the heart is built, to pulse and process blood. But the only organ that needs that pulsing action is the heart. So if you're working on a continuous blood flow, you don't need the pulse. If you're lucky enough to visit the Texas Heart Institute and head over to the animal research laboratory, you'll meet Abigail the calf who is very much alive, but has no heartbeat or pulse. I really want to meet that cow.
The pair also had success (of a sort) when they installed the device in a human patient, Craig Lewis, who had a disease that was attacking his organs. Lewis had only 12 hours to live due to damage to his heart, and so gladly accepted the non-heart replacement. His wife reports him waking up from surgery alive, well, but with no heartbeat. Lewis lived another month before his disease attacked other organs, but his pump continued working.
Both doctors appear to have managed a huge medical breakthrough that will constitute a major change in the way we measure life. After all, who would have thought if you didn't have a pulse, you could still walk around, breathing, eating, and, well ... living? Can you imagine the future where we have to check for signs of life in a myriad of ways, and not just assume because someone doesn't have a pulse, they're dead? Check the breathing, shove a pin into someone's hand, feel the skin for warmth ... but skip the pulse.
What will they think of next?
Image via erix!/Flickr