Only one surgeon is authorized to perform the operation: Dr. William DeVries, chairman of the Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery Section at the University of Utah.
The selected patient, Barney Clark, is a retired Seattle dentist. He suffers from very short-term fatal heart degeneration, but, aged 61, he is considered too old for a human heart transplant.
The intervention, advanced because of the "weakening of the heart rate" of the patient, begins in the middle of the night. At 2:30 a.m., the team announced that they had removed the diseased heart and at 6:00 a.m., had placed the prosthesis. All in all, the operation will last 7 hours.
Because in addition to the technical prowess of the implantation, the doctors had to face pulmonary edema, as well as internal bleeding from the tissues damaged by cortisone treatment. They were also forced to unexpectedly replace the left ventricle of the artificial heart which was malfunctioning.
- Two pipes and a bulky compressor -
At the end of the morning, the team qualifies the operation as "success" but adds in the process to be "moderately optimistic" as for the patient's chances of survival.
But in the afternoon, Barney Clark opens his eyes, recognizes his wife and tells the doctor with a nod that he is not in pain. He is quickly put back to sleep to avoid any strain on the stitches.
Its new heart is a "Jarvik 7", named after its inventor. If the operation will mark history, the heart is still at the experimental stage and the device far from ideal. The 300-gram prosthesis, installed in the patient's chest, is connected to a bulky 170-kg compressor by means of two one-meter pipes which escape from the dentist's body just below his rib cage.
Robert Jarvik's invention is not the first artificial heart to be implanted in a man, but the first intended to operate permanently and not just for a few hours while waiting for a human heart.
"There is still a lot of work to be done before the use of an artificial heart becomes routine. We will first have to make sure it works well and find a way to miniaturize the compressor", insists Dr. Jarvik, present during the operation.
- A contribution to the history of medicine -
This first is nonetheless hopeful: it is estimated, at the time, that each year 650,000 people die of cardiovascular disease in the United States. Against a hundred performed human heart transplants.
Five hours after the operation, the doctors announce that the artificial heart is working normally, two days later that it is "working wonderfully". Barney Clark begins to become himself again, announces his family.
"I don't think he believed the experiment would succeed. His intention in attempting it was to make a contribution to the history of medicine," says his son Stephen.
Several serious crises will then follow one another, including three requiring a return to the block. In February, more than two months after the transplant, the patient's condition was declared "good". He leaves the intensive care unit.
But on March 22, the hospital summons the press: "the state of mind is pessimistic". Barney Clark died the following day at 10:02 p.m. following a malfunction of various vital organs, after having lived 112 days with an artificial heart. Having always thought, according to his wife, that "it was worth it".