The AbioCor self-contained mechanical replacement heart in 2001
A pioneer at heart
Twelve years ago today, doctors at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Ky. implanted a self-contained mechanical heart inside a 59-year-old retired librarian named Robert Tools. Dubbed the AbioCor, the replacement heart was made of plastic and titanium, about the size of a softball, weighed four pounds and was powered by a wireless battery pack strapped to the patient’s waist.
Time magazine named it one of the best inventions of the year.
Though artificial hearts had been tested much earlier, most famously the Jarvik-7 in 1982, the AbioCor represented a first: it was self-contained and it was intended to be permanent, not just a transitional device until a real heart could be found for transplantation.
For Tools, it was a last…chance. He was in the end stages of chronic heart failure. He had lost more than 50 pounds, mostly muscle, and was essentially bedridden. Repeated cardiac events had reduced his heart to barely functional. He had been rejected as a heart transplant candidate because his kidneys were failing too. Without the AbioCor implantation, doctors estimated he had an 80 percent chance of dying within 30 days.
The operation was a relative success. Tools said as soon as he awoke from surgery, he knew he was getting better. His new heart made a constant whirring sound. “As long as I can hear that sound,” Tools said, “I know I am here.”
Doctors battled constantly with episodes of spontaneous bleeding and other complications, but Tools improved enough to occasionally venture outside the hospital for trips to ice cream parlors, a comedy club and a park. Alas, he never became well enough to be fully discharged and on November 30, 2001, Tools died from multiple organ failure.
But not his artificial heart, which beat flawlessly to the very end – an estimated 20 million times. Indeed, engineers needed to override safety commands in a computer to stop it.