Heart of Polyurethane: Barney Clark and the Artificial Heart

In December 1982, Dr. Barney B. Clark received the first permanent total artificial heart implant in a human. The implant was his last resort and his last chance of survival after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1979. He lived with the Jarvik-7 artificial heart for 112 days. Today a memorial in Provo honors his courage.

In December 1982, Dr. Barney Clark pioneered medical research by receiving the first artificial heart implant. Clark had suffered from congestive heart failure for several years and his condition was worsening. Despite the experimental nature of the implant and the potential for significant personal suffering, Clark wanted to receive the artificial heart. It represented his last remaining option for survival, and he aimed to contribute to the medical community’s knowledge in the field of heart disease. Before the surgery, Clark had been treated by several doctors. He tried many treatments including experimental medications. Because of the limited number of heart donors, he was too old and too sick to be eligible for an organic heart transplant. The Jarvik-7 artificial heart was his last resort. 

The artificial heart was heavily researched before Clark received it. Dr. William C. DeVries had been researching it since 1967. DeVries had implanted the Jarvik-7 heart in cadavers and in many live animals, including calves. Every detail of the preparation and the surgery were outlined almost two years before Clark was selected to receive the implant. 

The implant surgery was initially successful. On Thursday, December 2, 1982 the Provo Daily Herald reported that after seven hours of surgery the artificial heart was working well and that it had given Clark “the blood pressure of an 18-year-old.” Despite the successful surgery, Clark soon started facing complications. He experienced an air leak in his lung, seizures, a broken valve on the artificial heart, and frequent nose bleeds. The doctors fixed these problems as they arose, although they were never able to figure out the cause of the seizures. In March 1983 Clark suffered from aspiration pneumonia, which sent him back into the intensive care unit. He never recovered. On March 23, 1983 Clark “suffered from multiple organ system failure that caused a circulatory collapse” and passed away at 10:02 that night. Researchers concluded that the artificial heart itself had not killed him, but complications associated with the surgery and prior conditions had. 

Clark survived with the Jarvik-7 total artificial heart for 112 days, though experiencing great suffering. Many regard Barney Clark as a pioneer and a hero. A memorial in Provo honors his legacy. Today the artificial heart is used as a temporary placement while heart failure patients wait for a heart donor.

Images

Marker Close Up
Marker Close Up Creator: Photograph courtesy of Abigail Beus
Marker
Marker Creator: Photograph courtesy of Abigail Beus

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Metadata

Caitlin Zollinger, Brigham Young University, “Heart of Polyurethane: Barney Clark and the Artificial Heart,” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 24, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/768.