Spare parts for hearts! John Troan, Scripps-Howard Science writer, tells how dead men's hearts are helping to prolong the lives of others.
Three Canadian doctors report it now is possible to take heart valves from dead donors, "bank" them for as long as two months and then transplant them to other humans. So far, the doctors have succeeded in achieving this medical miracle six times in nine attempts. Their prize patient is a twenty-eight-year-old man who has been walking around with a dead man's heart valve for more than six and one-half years. Once so disabled by a crippled heart that he couldn't work, he now does "heavy manual labor" without difficulty.
The surgical feats are described in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine by Drs. A. J. Kerwin, S. C. Lenkei, and D. R. Wilson, of the University of Toronto. Dr. Wilson added, in a telephone interview, that similar work also is being done now in Houston by Denton A. Cooley, a world-famed heart surgeon.
What is transplanted is the aortic valve, a three-leafed organ in the base of the heart which controls flow of blood into the aorta, the main artery. From there, the blood is circulated throughout the body. Sometimes, usually as a result of rheumatic fever, this valve is damaged and permits blood to leak back into the lower left chamber of the heart. This makes the heart balloon and work extra hard.
The heart reveals to us wonders beyond words fully to portray. The heart, a mass of muscle, weighing only about three-quarters of a pound, has the hardest job of any organ in the body. Hold out your hand and clench the fingers into a fist. Let the fingers relax slightly, then squeeze them together powerfully. Imagine yourself repeating this operation seventy times a minute, unremittingly, hour after hour, from long before your birth to the instant of your death. That is the appalling assignment of the human heart—a task which it performs so uncomplainingly that few of us are aware of its burden until we run upstairs too fast or until our physician wags his stethoscope at a mitral murmur. The heart beats or contracts from sixty to eighty times a minute—or an average of seventy-two times a minute, 4320 times an hour, some 100,000 times a year. Dr. Arthur I. Brown says the heart exerts enough energy every twenty-four hours to raise a two-pound weight twelve miles in the air.
Normally, the heart forces about five quarts of the body's blood through the circulatory system about once a minute. A drop of blood usually makes its round trip through the circulatory system in twenty-two seconds. The heart, performing each day the equivalent to lifting a one-ton elevator to a height of eight stories, keeps a river of blood going through the body—while we eat, while we sleep, while we rest, while we work.What a fearfully and wonderfully-made thing is the human heart!