barney-clark-heart-transplant-headIt still may sound like science fiction, the story of the man with the Jarvik-7 heart, tethered to 6-foot hoses and living a 112-day experiment for the good of medical science. But the retired 62-year-old dentist was real and is considered to this day to be a selfless pioneer in the field of cardiology.

Thirty-three years ago this month, Clark was on the brink of death, his own heart unable to pump enough blood and paper-thin from previous steroid therapy. Understanding the slim chances of even leaving the operating room, Clark underwent a 7 1/2-hour operation to place into his chest cavity a polyurethane and aluminum artificial heart invented by Robert Jarvik, M.D. About two-thirds of Clark’s diseased heart was taken out by a University of Utah Medical Center surgical team led by William C. DeVries, M.D.

barney-clark-heart-standingThe artificial heart made a soft clicking sound audible through Clark’s chest wall. The brief amount of time he had after the operation was filled with many setbacks including seizures, pneumonia, kidney and pulmonary failure, and operations to stop air leaks from his lungs and to fix a broken component of the artificial heart. He never left the hospital.

However, for a time, the artificial heart did work wonders. By February, he was able to walk the intensive care unit using a walker and could pedal an exercise bike for up to 10 minutes. Clark’s artificial heart was still working when he died from circulatory collapse and multiple organ failure on March 23, 1983.

Barney Clark’s experience did not lead to routine implantation of mechanical hearts for long-term use. Instead, Clark’s contribution to science helped researchers to develop better, more reliable artificial hearts and partial-heart devices, almost all of which have been used as a bridge to human heart transplantation.

But as John Dwan, spokesman for the University of Utah Medical Center, eulogized him, Clark was “a seemingly ordinary man who became a selfless pioneer. He did a service to mankind and the knowledge that we will gain from him will serve us all.”

This story was revised from a chapter in 100 Faces of Health Care, published by the American Hospital Association. Source: J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, Photographs by Brad Nelson.