JUN 15, 2016 05:05 AM PDT

Man Lives Without a Human Heart for 555 Days

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham
Some people wear their heart on their sleeves; Stan Larkin wore his in a grey backpack, literally. After living without a real heart for more than one and a half year – 555 days to be exact – Stan Larkin of Michigan finally received a donor organ. Aside from the medical feat that is the heart transplant itself, Larkin’s case proved the extent to which artificial hearts can alter the course of a patient’s outcome for the better.

             Stan Larkin | University of Michigan Health System 

Larkin’s heart problems began suddenly nine years ago when he collapsed during a game of basketball. It turned out that he and his brother have a genetic form of heart disease called arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia or ARVD. Their genetic predisposition meant that their hearts would eventually fail without medical intervention.
 
As predicted, both brothers progressed into heart failure in 2014. "It's an awful condition to have," said Jonathan Haft, the Larkin brothers’ cardiac surgeon. "But the technology available and the technology that is evolving in the field of heart failure is very exciting. ... The total artificial heart falls into that category."
 
Indeed, the Larkin brothers were switched on to total artificial hearts (TAH) by SynCardia Systems. Dominique Larkin received a live heart transplant after six weeks with the artificial heart, while Stan was on the waitlist for longer.
 
But while he was waiting for a heart, Stan Larkin lived his life outside of the hospital, all without a heart inside his chest. "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," said Stan Larkin.
 
 

Artificial hearts have been developed, but Stan’s version is one of the few that’s actually portable and allowed patients freedom from the hospital. The artificial heart connected to a wearable, 13.5-pound machine that provided power and compressed air to pump blood throughout Larkin’s body. This portable driver is called the Freedom Driver, and it sits in a small grey backpack that Larkin carried with him for 555 days.
 
"It's just like a real heart," said Larkin. "It's just in a bag with tubes coming out of you, but other than that, it feels like a real heart. ... It felt just like a backpack with books in it, like if you were going to school."
 
Stan’s case is a true testament to how far we have medical innovations have progressed. In addition, his case is a clear demonstration of the remarkable resiliency and adaptability of the human body. After his transplant, Stan said at a news conference: "I got the transplant two weeks ago and I feel like I could take a jog as we speak. I want to thank the donor who gave themselves for me. I'd like to meet their family one day. Hopefully they'd want to meet me."

Additional sources: University of Michigan Health System, Medical Daily
 
About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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