Even the most medically disinclined people know one thing for sure – you need a heart in your body to stay alive. But try to imagine sitting in the doctor’s surgery and being told that, actually, this wasn’t strictly true.
Well, that’s exactly what happened to Stan Larkin, a 20-something man from Michigan. Almost a decade ago, after collapsing while playing basketball, Stan was diagnosed with familial cardiomyopathy, which is a genetic disorder that results in inefficient blood flow.
What happened next is one of the most incredible medical stories you’re ever going to read. It’s the tale of a man who lived without a heart for a staggering 555 days, and it verges on the unbelievable.
After Stan’s collapse it didn’t take doctors long to realize what was wrong. Shortly after his diagnosis, in fact, it was also discovered that his younger brother Dominique was suffering from the same problem.
Dr. Jonathan Haft, a University of Michigan surgeon who’s performed operations on both brothers, told CNN that familial cardiomyopathy is “an awful condition to have.” And it didn’t take long for it to manifest in some pretty alarming ways.
The condition is characterized by the muscles in one of the heart’s chambers stretching, which impacts the organ’s ability to pump blood. This can lead to arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, and – more alarmingly – heart failure.
This is exactly what happened to the brothers, both of whom also suffered cardiogenic shocks at the tail-end of 2014. At this point, it was decided that Stan and Dominique needed new hearts. But there was another step to take first.
At any one time there are around 4,000 people in the U.S. in need of a heart transplant. If they wait for too long then their other organs may start to fail, which is why a temporary interim solution is needed.
It comes in the form of an artificial heart, which both brothers ended up receiving. Dominique remained a hospital inpatient for six weeks with his until a suitable human donor was found; for Stan, however, things were a little different.
Stan was, according to Dr. Haft, the ideal candidate to test an artificial heart away from the hospital. And so he spent 18 months carrying his artificial heart in a backpack everywhere he went – without a real one in his chest.
His temporary heart is called a Syncardia – a special device that’s used when both of the heart’s ventricles fail. It allowed him to go home from the hospital and only return when a suitable donor organ was found.
Stan was understandably pretty surprised about the whole thing. “I was shocked when the doctors started telling me that I could live without a heart in my body and that a machine was going to be my heart,” he told CNN. “Just think about it – a machine.”
The Syncardia was connected to another machine – the Freedom Driver – via two tubes that emerged below Stan’s rib cage. This 13-pound machine didn’t just power the manmade heart; it also pumped air into it so that blood could flow around his body.
The artificial heart didn’t actually hinder Stan too much. He wasn’t bed-ridden, nor was he forced to drastically change his lifestyle. It helped that, throughout the 18-month period, Stan maintained a wonderfully positive attitude.
Stan played pick-up basketball with his life-preserving backpack on, hung out with his kids and rode in cars with his friends. “It’s just like a real heart,” he explained to CNN. “It’s just in a bag with tubes coming out of you, but other than that, it feels like a real heart.”
“He really thrived on the device,” Dr. Haft told the University of Michigan Health System. “This wasn’t made for pick-up basketball. Stan pushed the envelope with this technology.” All that the patient couldn’t do was give piggy-back rides to his children.
Stan’s situation was embraced by his family. Voncile McCrae, his mom, regularly bandaged the holes where the tubes entered his body. “We had to be careful so that he wouldn’t get an infection,” she told CNN.
After 555 days with the artificial heart, Stan finally received a transplant from a human donor. Thanks to the success of the Syncardia device – which allowed him to live as normal a life as possible while waiting – his recovery has been faster than normal.
Stan said he hoped his experience would help others in similar situations. “I just want to tell them that you have to go through the fear, because it helps you,” he told CNN. “I’m going home so fast after the transplant because it helped me stay healthy.”
David J. Pinsky, a director of the University of Michigan’s Frankel Cardiovascular Center, called Stan and Dominique “heroes.” “You’ll make a difference for a lot of patients,” he said during a press conference. “You’ll make a difference to the doctors of the future. We thank you for allowing us to share your story and your bravery in sharing it.”