By James Boggs
Last year the FDA approved the SynCardia Freedom Driver, a new type of artificial heart small enough to fit in a backpack. Although artificial hearts have been around for a while now, used to bridge the gap between a patient’s heart failing and when they receive a transplant, they have never been nearly as portable as this one.
A commonly used previous version, known as Big Blue, was nearly the size of a dresser, and had to be rolled around by orderlies if the patient wanted to move. Although it did its job well, it greatly hindered the patients’ mobility, restricting them to the hospital and even to the availability of orderlies.
Last month, a man from Ypsilanti, Mich., became one of the first to use the Freedom Driver. The device functions in exactly the same way as Big Blue, but is small and lightweight enough to fit in a backpack.
The Freedom Driver has allowed Stan Larkin, who was diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia when he was 16, the mobility to walk freely. This freedom meant that he was able to leave the hospital on Dec. 23, just in time to spend the Christmas holiday with his family.
Both Big Blue and the new Freedom Drive are totally artificial hearts, a special and extreme type of life support device. Most other heart-assisting devices merely aid the existing ventricles, or pumps, of the heart in their effort to spread blood through the body. Total artificial hearts, however, replace the old ventricles entirely.
A human heart has two ventricles, a left and a right, which pump the blood across the body. Deoxygenated blood, which is blood that has been used by the body, is pumped into the heart through the right ventricle, and pumped from there into the lungs. The left ventricle finishes the cycle, pumping oxygenated blood from the lungs to the rest of the body.
A total artificial heart replaces these ventricles with plastic simulacrums, which are connected to a compressor by two tubes. The compressor takes the place of the muscle that made up the ventricles, allowing the heart to function normally again.
The original model was developed in 1982, and still sees use today, but patients have only now gained the mobility necessary for free movement with the creation of the Freedom Driver.