03/31/2014
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First artificial heart: April 4, 1969

SLICE OF HISTORY

Dr. Denton Cooley implants the world's first artificial heart into the chest of a 47-year-old man dying of heart failure. Since no human heart is available for the patient named Haskell Karp, Denton feels he has no choice but to use the half-pound plastic and Dacron device to keep him alive until one can be found.

Karp survives three days until a heart is flown in from a donor body in Massachusetts. But he lives less than two more days before his body rejects the new heart.

The procedure, though, is hailed as a major breakthrough and just as quickly sets off one of the longest-running feuds in medical history. The artificial heart had been developed in a laboratory at Baylor University that was under the authority of another top heart surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey, who also was a former partner of Cooley's.

According to Cooley's version of the story, the man who actually built the device, Dr. Domngo Liotta, had become frustrated with what he felt was DeBakey's lack of enthusiasm to use the artificial heart and brought it to Cooley. When faced with the impending death of Karp, the heart patient, Cooley thought he had little choice but to use it.  "Was I going to let Mr. Karp die on the operating table or try to save his life by whatever means?," he would later write. 

But DeBakey would see the incident in a very different light. He believes that Cooley had taken the device, without his permission, because he wanted to be the first person to implant an artificial heart.

Their dispute, enflamed by a cover story in Life magazine the following year titled "A Bitter Feud," would last until 2007, when DeBakey, 99 years old and in a wheelchair, would shake hands with Cooley at a public event in Houston where the former accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society.

DeBakey died in 2008. Cooley is now 93 and lives in Houston, Texas. The artificial heart is in the Smithsonian.